Currently, with the weak economy, many companies are not thinking so much about labor shortages. But here is a sobering thought: In 2011, the oldest of the 76 million baby boomers (people born between 1945 and 1964) will turn 65, the traditional retirement age. A systematic labor shortage is expected to impact many industries, especially the trucking industry as we have highlighted before in Logistics Viewpoints.
Ergonomics may be part of the answer to this challenge.
I came across a November 2009 article in Industrial Engineer titled “Policy of the Ages” by Cynthia L. Roth. According to the article, “After the age of 40, changes in joint range of motion, vision, hearing, strength and fine motor dexterity, along with postural unsteadiness, become more likely. Because of these changes, the aging employees may not be able to perform tasks that were designed without applied ergonomics and human factors.”
Ergonomics can be a tool to retain, or even attract, older workers. If the labor is not too burdensome, many companies find it easier to retain older workers than their younger counterparts.
What would that mean for a warehouse that wants to hire and retain those over 40?
- As the vision of middle-aged employees becomes less acute, warehouses will need to be brighter.
- As hearing declines, we will need quieter material handling equipment.
- As skin elasticity decreases, and thyroid function decreases, regulating body temperature becomes more difficult and people have less tolerance for heat and cold. The premium paid for working in cold storage will need to increase.
- As muscle mass decreases with age, there is increased muscle response time and fatigue. We will need increased use of mechanical lifts and design processes to eliminate twisting. The new generation of Automatic Guided Vehicles or intelligent forklifts could help.
Nevertheless, if you are a floor level associate at a high volume warehouse, picking is a strenuous job. Ergonomics can reduce the burdens, but not totally eliminate them. If you use goods-to-man material handling processes, as opposed to a person going to the goods for order selection, you reduce the fatigue associated with walking miles every day. But the high volume workstations that replace them increase the chances of repetitive stress injuries.
When I’ve toured warehouses, I’ve noticed few floor level employees over the age of 50 involved in picking. Older floor level employees have been shifted to receiving, quality control, and other less strenuous tasks where company and product know-how matter more than physicality. And yet labor shortages may be looming. Life could be on the verge of getting more complicated for companies operating warehouses that need to hire order selectors.