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Labor shortage can create ergonomic issues

Baking business/ Football players train year-round in blocking, kicking, passing and tackling. In basketball, they specialize in slam dunks, three-pointers or relentless defense. In bakeries, the workers’ bodies have adapted over the years to lifting 50-lb sacks of flour and a myriad of other arduous, repetitive tasks.



That’s why Matt Gabris, vice president of environmental health safety and security, Aspire Bakeries, Chicago, refers to these industry veterans as “industrial athletes,” who are specifically conditioned to palletize 30-lb cases of products and perform other duties to keep the bakery running each day when rookies may falter.

And he has the research to back it up.

“The data indicates that more seasoned employees have fewer early-onset musculoskeletal injuries in shoulders, knees and backs because these employees are work-hardened,” Mr. Gabris explained. “They’re industrial athletes just like any Olympic athletes. They do the same thing over and over, and their bodies get conditioned for that type of work. Certainly, there are and should be safety measures built into that.”

In today’s labor environment, where many bakeries are scrambling to find enough employees, new hires are potentially more likely to suffer from musculoskeletal injuries due to ergonomic issues or look for another job that’s less strenuous. Ergonomics has to do not only with safety, but also with finding and retaining a stable workforce.

“Every industry says it has an aging workforce, but the more the baking industry can retain its people by making its working conditions as comfortable as possible, whether through rotation or ergonomic work design or through automation, there will always be a payback to that,” said Mr. Gabris, who also co-chairs the American Bakers Association’s (ABA) Human Resources and Safety Professionals Group. “You may have to get a little creative on the return on investment (ROI), but it’s there, and ethically it’s the right thing to do.”

Moreover, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and subsequent labor shortages have put additional stress on employees and management, added Jon Anderson, president, JRA Occupational Safety Consulting LLC, who has advised the ABA, bakeries and other companies on ergonomic issues for years.

“With fewer workers available, employees are finding workloads increasing,” Mr. Anderson said. “Recently, while visiting a major US-based baking company, I watched as line operators were covering more processing lines than they normally would. This caused them to cover more floor space, hurrying from one station to others that would normally be covered by a co-worker. More exertion, more steps, more lifting, more stress and more exposure to physical stressors and potential injury.”

In other food manufacturing sites, he’s seen more frequent product jams because there were fewer line workers to observe and react, resulting in increased downtime, product loss and quality issues.

“All of these concerns have compounded ergonomic issues and result in increased workloads and stress levels for everyone,” Mr. Anderson said.

The most common issues involve soft tissue injuries such as back, shoulder and wrist strains.

“It seems that these injuries are perhaps more numerous due to increases in production and labor shortages,” Mr. Anderson observed. “In some cases, people are working longer hours or longer work weeks with fewer days off, and some are just feeling the results of heavier workloads.”

When Tippin’s Gourmet Pies moved into its new facility in 2020, the Kansas City, Kan., pie manufacturer improved product consistency, efficiency and capacity, but labor savings also played a vital role.

“We put automation in to help impact our workers,” said Jim Antrup, vice president of sales and marketing, Tippin’s. “It wasn’t to replace them, but to limit the amount of lifting and repetitive motion. With the current labor market, thank goodness we put some automation in because hiring has been so difficult.”

In the older facility, he recalled, pies were manually loaded and unloaded onto 6-foot racks that were pushed into cooling areas and the freezer, then pulled out later for finishing and packaging. Now everything is conveyorized, which not only provides labor savings but also enhanced food safety.

“From a workplace safety perspective, we eliminated all of the pushing and pulling of those heavy racks filled with pies,” Mr. Antrup said. “From a quality and food safety perspective, the fewer times you touch something, the better it is.”

The bakery also added pallet lifts to eliminate any strenuous bending and picking up of flour bags. Newly installed robotics assist to reduce repetitive motion in the decorating of pies.

“We still do limited hand decorating, but we’re very conscious to make sure that we don’t have the same people hand-decorating for 8 hours at a time,” Mr. Antrup said. “Mostly they’re hand-decorating if we’re running behind or to touch up what the robotics may have missed.”

He noted that automatic case erecting also reduced repetitive tasks and paid for itself in a matter of months. The next step will involve further automating the mostly manual packaging department.

 “I can remember the number of hours that I stood there building cases,” Mr. Antrup recalled. “It’s not hard work, but it takes time and space. If you are building cases for tomorrow, you need space to store them and keep them clean.”

Mr. Gabris pointed out the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has long considered commercial bakeries a higher-risk work environment because of its overall recordable injury rate, which is 5.4 per 100 employees.

“From a numbers standpoint, as a member of the ABA, we represent 800,000 employees in North America,” he said. “If 5.4% of them are injured, that’s 43,200 people who are injured in bakeries on average each year.”

That overall average differs based on the type of bakery, such as a tortilla or cookie operation, and it varies by company. At Aspire Bakeries, which has 15 manufacturing plants, the rate is less than half that average, but the goal is always zero.

“When you talk about safety, you always talk about the numbers, and those numbers on that spreadsheet are people,” Mr. Gabris said.

Those numbers also come with a dollar sign, and here’s where the ROI for ergonomics is calculated. Mr. Gabris said the average cost of recordable injuries where employees need medical attention — based on four years and 1,400 data points — is $13,200. Most are for small injuries, but some are for musculoskeletal issues that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Labor costs, he said, are another ROI factor.

“From a turnover perspective, when you have 20% to 30% turnover on some jobs, what does an hour of training cost for employees that walk in and realize they’re not an industrial athlete and leave after two weeks just after they received all of that training and the costs associated with it?” Mr. Gabris asked.

From a historical perspective, ergonomics became a huge issue for the baking industry in the late 1980s after OSHA fined Pepperidge Farm, a part of Camden, NJ-based Campbell Soup Co., $1.3 million. Specifically, the agency cited the company’s Downingtown, Pa., facility, where workers manually topped Milano cookies, then hand-packed them in paper cups. Today at its nearby Denver, Pa., plant and others, robotics do all the repetitive work.

For nearly a decade after that fine, however, OSHA proposed an all-encompassing rule that would have regulated movement from inside the plant.

“It was a very 1950s command-and-control regulation,” recalled Robb MacKie, ABA’s president and chief executive officer. “Whether you are moving boxes or ingredients or stacks of trays, it would have regulated it.”

Mr. MacKie co-chaired an ergonomics coalition that successfully blocked the rules from taking effect until late 1990s during the Clinton Administration.

Back then, the coalition, which included several hundred industry, civic and government associations, estimated the rule, with its massive outreach and special fines, would cost tens of millions of dollars to implement and place onerous restrictions on every entity from bakeries and pharmaceuticals to trash haulers and school lunch workers.

It would also have federalized workers’ compensation, which has always been run at the state level.

However, after President George W. Bush took office 2001, the Republican House and Senate passed the first ever enacted Congressional Review Act, which allowed Congress to strike down OSHA’s regulation. Mr. MacKie noted it would now take a two-thirds majority of Congress to overturn that law, which, in essence, prevents OSHA from enacting ergonomic regulations for the realistic future. That’s why there are no specific federal ergonomic regulations today.

Since then, ergonomics have been driven primarily by industry efforts to reduce injuries and cut costly workers’ compensation claims. And now, the labor shortage is providing another incentive to make bakeries more hospitable to new workers who are not industrial athletes.

“Nobody wants to see injured workers,” Mr. MacKie said. “Particularly through the pandemic, we totally recognize the contributions that our skilled workforce is making and how essential they are to the industry. If safety were a big issue before the pandemic, it is exponentially greater right now than it was, especially with workplace shortages.”