Reusable bag guide: responding to a new hazard

Nov 18, 2011

Reusable bag guide: responding to a new hazardScanning and bagging groceries is such a commonplace activity that shoppers barely notice the process. But grocery retailers monitor it closely for its impact on customer service, employee well-being, and productivity. Recently, a new concern has arisen: potential health and safety implications of reusable bags.

The advent of reusable bags began setting off alarm bells several years ago. Existing checkout stations were not designed to accommodate the varying sizes and configurations of these bags, leading to concerns that cashiers could sustain strains and sprains from filling them. “Customers now bring in any type of bag you can think of, including hockey bags,” says Gerard Betsch, member of the Workplace Safety & Prevention Services reusable bag working group and director, occupational health, safety and wellness at Sobeys Ontario. “Imagine a cashier having to manage that.”

Among grocery store staff, cashiers already experience the greatest proportion of work-related injuries: 35% in 2009. Most of these injuries result from the physical demands of scanning and bagging.

Prior to the introduction of reusable bags, “pass, scan and drop” checkout processing had promised to significantly reduce the amount of twisting and turning required of cashiers. “It was a very elegant solution,” says Betsch, “and it had taken the industry decades to get there.” But almost overnight, reusable bags threatened the industry’s advances in checkout station design.

The industry’s response: publication this year of Reusable Bag Guidelines, a 40-page document developed by Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS) in partnership with representatives of grocery employers, labour organizations, employer associations, suppliers, and workers.

John Cunningham, a WSPS key account manager and contributor to the reusable bag working group, explains that the guidelines – the first of their kind – enable workplaces to assess their workstations, and provide tools to help them develop short- and long-term solutions. The guidelines present a means for workplaces to protect advances in productivity and injury prevention as the industry adjusts to the now ubiquitous reusable bags. “The key,” says Cunningham, “is flexibility.”

Betsch notes that “in the short term, the industry can’t change many of its cash-out systems. These are the product of a long-engineered and re-engineered design process, and represent a significant capital investment for any retailer. So, the working group needed to develop coping strategies while the industry determines how it will deal with the issue from a design perspective. As the working group began work on these strategies, it also challenged the front-end manufacturers to come up with ways to add flexibility to their designs.” In other words, reduce or eliminate the hazard by re-engineering the front-end stations.

The back story: how the guidelines came about
The process by which the guidelines came about is almost as significant as the document itself.

In June 2009, a grocery retailer mentioned his ergonomic concerns to Eliz Hillier, a WSPS key account manager with many clients in the grocery industry. Did others share his concern, he asked, and if so was there an opportunity to identify, as an industry, best practices for controlling the hazards.

Hillier took on the challenge, creating a working group that comprised grocers, labour organizations, employer associations, suppliers, and ergonomists. Among the members:

  • Loblaw Companies Ltd
  • Longos
  • Metro
  • Sobeys
  • Walmart
  • Canadian Auto Workers
  • United Food and Commercial Workers
  • Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors
  • Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers
  • Retail Council of Canada
  • Pan Oston
  • N-Take Ecodurable Products
  • Workplace Safety and Prevention Services

“At the start,” says Betsch, “The issue was so confounding that the working group really had no choice but to use all the resources available to us. Frankly, I was not expecting the solution we achieved.” Betsch has been involved in advisory committees throughout his career, but few had brought together such a disparate group of stakeholders to work through a project from beginning to end.

Despite the potential for conflict, Betsch described the process as cordial and collegial. “I’ve heard it said that Ontario’s grocery market is the most competitive in the world. We’re fighting for each nickel and dime every day of every week, but when it comes to common industry-wide issues like this, everyone recognized that we have a potential problem that’s bigger than all of us, and we needed to bring all our resources together.” He credits Hillier – “she’s very good at herding cats” – and John Cunningham after Hillier retired, with keeping the project on track.

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