Ergonomics in distribution: How to improve work environment at hubs

With day-to-day delivery becoming the industry standard, CEP providers are under increasing pressure to distribute faster. Automation enables high-speed sortation, but for human operators to interact safely and efficiently with automated systems, they need smartly designed workplaces.

With the steady flow of shipments moving at high speeds and the constant risk of parcels piling up, being an operator in the highly competitive CEP industry can be physically demanding. If the work environment is unhealthy or unsafe, parcel processing can be stressing, and under such conditions, no operator will last very long. CEP companies have no interest in wearing down their workforce.

Why ergonomics is important to CEP companies

Attracting and retaining operators

Under favorable economic conditions, when unemployment rates are low, skilled and reliable operators are hard to come by, and replacing staff is costly. CEP companies are increasingly paying attention to retaining valuable staff – and attracting new hires – by designing work environments that are safe and less taxing. In this regard, ergonomics is not just about designing workplace to a minimal safety standard, it’s also about ‘humanising’ workstations, for example by making room for personal belongings on the production floor.

Compliance

On a global level, regulations for work environment safety and health are generally becoming stronger. For example, most countries have regulations for how much weight an operator can carry, for how long time, and how far operators can extend their arms while carrying something. In order to be CE certified, distribution centres in the European Economic Area, need to comply with the EU Directive on machinery, which includes directions specifically about ergonomics.

Efficiency

Sortation efficiency and workplace safety are not opposites. In fact, ergonomics is per definition about ensuring both efficient and safe interaction between people and items through design.

With the ever increasing level of automation that has happened in manufacturing and logistics since the sixties, researchers and engineers are paying more and more attention to how to best adapt human processes to the unyielding work of machines.

While it’s human nature to work at varying speeds, during a workday for example, automated systems never rest or slow down. Ergonomics can help support workflows that can be performed at a moderate pace over a longer period of time without exhaustion.

Ergonomics research also contribute to the innovation of sortation systems themselves. For example, when calculating the right ergonomically position for a new type of sortation system, we at BEUMER Group found that a certain movement performed by operators when handling rest mail parcels, could in fact also optimise the position of parcels for camera or scanner recording. This reduced the number of “no-reads” in the system, enabling both more automated sortation and less physical handling of problematic parcels.

Read more about how distribution centres can handle “no read” parcels.

CEP operators at individual work stations.

How to design distribution centres based on ergonomics

At the heart of operations at distribution hubs is the automated parcel processing system. At any point where human operators interface with the machine, whether physically or virtually, there’s potential for optimisation, both in terms of efficiency and in terms of ensuring workflows that are ergonomically sound. Sometimes, just minor adjustments can make a world of difference for everyday workflows and efficiency on the larger scale.

Newer sortation technology is not only increasing distribution capacity, it is also improving work environment quality. Such systems reduce the amount of heavy lifting, repeated movements, and unnatural working positions.

There are several things parcel distributors can do to ensure ergonomics-based design of sortation systems, and with great system design, operator safety and gentle handling of parcels go hand in hand.

For example, when deciding the position of a destination chute for parcels going into a roller cage, the system design take into account both how much space the operator needs to effectively and safely change the roller cages when full, and how the cage should be positioned to avoid parcels smashing into each other. Ideally, a tiny parcel should never get hit directly by a larger, heavier parcel. This can be avoided by slowing down parcel speed with a gradient tilt of the roller cage.

A CEP operator placing a parcel on a conveyor

Other ergonomical options include:

  • Adjustable floor height: Allows the operator to adjust his working position exactly to his or her height.
  • Automated cage filling stations: Spares the operator from repetitive movement.
  • Roller brakes on accumulation chutes: By slowing down items on chutes, you take care of the items while avoiding that parcels come towards the operator at high speeds.
  • Accessible button design: Making sure that system buttons are placed at the right position and the right height so that repetitive movements, such as "hitting the green light”, which is done several times on a shift, can be done ergonomically.
  • Low-noise sortation system: The noise level of sortation components have a huge impact on the overall noise level in a distribution hall. With a low-noise system, operators can usually work without hearing protection, which is unheard of when manning more conventional sortation systems.
  • Adequate light at working stations: Light has become an integral part of designing a distribution hub. Sufficient and process-optimised light enables more comfortable working positions.

To accommodate for both competitive forces demanding ever faster sortation speeds and for the scarcity of skilled operators, CEP providers need to design both efficient and attractive workplaces. Ergonomics can help optimise operations, e.g. better parcel handling, while limiting work hazards, like heavy lifting, repeated movement, and unnatural working positions.

Get the full overview: Read our guide to e-commerce logistics for parcel distributors.

How to Apply Health and Safety Regulations to Ergonomics-1

Guide to applying health and safety regulations to ergonomics.

Global trends in automated logistics point to more industry regulations favoring operator safety. Our experienced system designers and technical consultants at BEUMER Group work with clients every day to translate regulations into practical solutions that contribute to a better work environment and improve employee productivity and retention.

5 things to consider for your automated sortation system

Emerging trends in global e-commerce make it increasingly difficult to know which is the right solution for automated parcel sortation. 

To get started, download our guide for e-commerce parcel distributors: “5 things to consider for your automated sortation system”.

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Meet the experts

Jørgen Staun, Concept Designer

Jørgen has been working with automation for thirty years. Many of his inventions started out as odd ideas that turned out to be well-functioning solutions. Jørgen never settles for the straight-forward approach if there’s the slightest chance that an alternative approach would work better.

Flemming Vejlby Rasmussen, Quality Engineer

Flemming contributes with his expertise on work environment requirements and regulations as part of designing sortation solutions for BEUMER clients. He educates System Designers in current norms and directives within ergonomics and other workplace safety and health-related issues.

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