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NIOSH: The Science of Safety in the Workplace

Editor’s Note: As we continue to work through the diverse challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s essential that all of us diligently explore the various resources available to help keep our stores, our customers, our employees, and the general public safe and protected while keeping the business productive and running smoothly. NIOSH is a federal agency that has long been dedicated to this mission, and their messages and research have perhaps never been more important than they are today.

Every retail operation is a complicated web of activity. There is always something happening as minds, machines, individuals, and technologies are all expected to work together as the controlled chaos of the retail enterprise marches forward. To keep it all running smoothly, there are fundamental practices that we all must get behind to promote a productive business and a quality workplace. Clearly, safety in the workplace is one of the most important.

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Every work environment is different, and the retail setting is no exception. Diverse environments keep the stores and the entire organization in a state of constant transition. Products change as seasons and styles change, requiring continuous adjustments to both the store and the stock. Weather comes into play, as does the type of merchandise that is sold, the format of the store, and countless other factors. We must consider all of the different scenarios that can possibly influence our decisions, and then we must add a key variable that sets the retail environment apart from many other workplace settings—the retail customer.

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Safety in the workplace is everyone’s concern and a shared responsibility that holds all of us collectively accountable. It must be a part of our mindset, and instilled in our habits as we approach everyday tasks.

All of us understand how busy our work days can become, and it’s easy to grow distracted by both the demands of the job and the routine of day-to-day responsibilities. But we can never overlook the need to work smart, and take the time and care to do the job safely.

This also means that we must learn to take advantage of all of the resources at our disposal, and seek out opportunities to become better prepared and better informed. Safety isn’t something that happens by accident. There is a science to maintaining safety in the workplace.

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NIOSH vs. OSHA

NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) were both established as part of the Occupational Safety Act of 1970 signed into law by President Nixon. But NIOSH differs from OSHA in a number of ways. While OSHA is an enforcement and regulatory agency that is part of the US Department of Labor, NIOSH is a research and information institute within the Department of Health and Human Services.

NIOSH Taft CenterNIOSH is a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is the federal agency responsible for conducting research and making recommendations for maintaining safety in the workplace and the prevention of work-related injury and illness. We provide national and world leadership to prevent work-related illness, injury, disability, and death by gathering information, conducting scientific research, responding to requests for workplace health hazard evaluations, and translating the knowledge gained into informational products and services. This would include numbered publications, journal articles, web-based materials, training videos, and recommendations for improving health and safety in the workplace. All of these resources are readily available to the public.

OSHA’s mission is also to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women, but by setting and enforcing federal regulations and standards, and by providing education and assistance.

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The mission of NIOSH is to generate new knowledge in the field of occupational safety and health, and to transfer that knowledge into practice to protect workers. We focus on the research. However, one aspect that we have in common is that all of the outreach, information, and resources are free to the public.

National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA)

In 1996 NIOSH launched the National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA), an innovative public-private partnership that focuses on developing partnerships with business, labor, trade associations, universities, and other agencies to stimulate innovative research and improved workplace practices. Collectively, these parties all work together to identify issues related to health and safety in the workplace that require attention, and develop strategies to improve conditions and effect change.

NORA has become a research framework for NIOSH and the nation. Diverse parties collaborate to identify the most critical issues in workplace safety and health. Those partners work together to develop goals and objectives for addressing these needs. NORA resources are then committed to those issues most relevant to the problems of today’s workplaces, conducted using the highest quality science, and having a measurable impact on improving the lives of workers.

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Every workplace has unique issues and opportunities. As a result, NORA uses a sector-based approach to define and meet high-priority needs at a more granular level. The retail industry is categorized under the Wholesale and Retail Trade (WRT) sector.

The goals of the Wholesale and Retail Trade sector are determined based on information obtained from the Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses, provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) continue to be the most recurrent class of injuries in the private-sector workforce, with the majority of the MSD lost-time injuries being labeled as strains and sprains. As a result, many initiatives focus on the reduction of these types of injuries. However, additional high-frequency, high-risk areas are addressed as well. These would include, but are not limited to:

  • The reduction of acute traumatic injuries by minimizing the hazards that cause falls, slips, and trips.
  • Mitigating acute injuries that result from contact with hard objects.
  • The reduction of workplace violence through improved workplace design and improved training.
  • A reduction in motor-vehicle-related injuries and fatalities.
  • Improved outreach to small businesses by providing access to current safety and health information.
  • Expanding the availability and use of effective interventions to reduce injuries and illnesses.

Research Priorities

Research priorities are typically determined by reviewing three criteria. First, we consider the number of, or an elevated incidence rate for injuries and illnesses recorded for a particular hazard. This data is gathered from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, state-based workers’ compensation programs and other sources, and then compared with the number of workers in a given business. The seriousness of the hazard or issue is also an important consideration, as our goal is to eliminate or control those hazards that are associated with the most serious health outcomes.

Finally, the probability that new research or strategies will be successful in protecting employees from one or more hazards causing the injuries or illnesses is weighed so that we effectively utilize our resources to have the greatest impact on reducing these issues.

Typical projects would include:

  • Surveillance projects that involve collecting health and injury/illness data about the workforce.
  • Etiological/causation projects that determine the primary hazards that employees are exposed to in the workplace that are responsible for adverse health outcomes.
  • Prevention projects that seek to develop new or improved tools or strategies for controlling or eliminating the hazards.
  • Informational projects that include the development of informational products or media that report on these findings.

Concerns Facing Retailers Today

So what are some of the primary health and safety concerns that retailers are dealing with on a regular and consistent basis? Below are some of the more common challenges that are faced in the retail setting today.

The Cost and Impact of Workplace Injuries. These conversations must include an understanding of the direct and indirect costs associated with preventable injuries. Hence, retailers must begin to think about linking sales to the cost of an injury just as they apply the principle to other areas of the business. For example, what is the cost in terms of additional sales dollars necessary to offset the cost of a single injury?

The Nature of Injuries and Lack of Solutions. The industry’s top retailers identify overexertion and related injuries such as sprains, strains, MSDs, ergonomic issues, and like incidents as their primary safety concerns. Yet most further reveal that they do not have any new or effective solutions or preventative strategies to address these concerns. For example, while improper lifting of heavy objects can certainly result in potential injuries, improper reaching for objects, such as when reaching for products deep in a stockroom shelving space, can also result in injuries and needs to be addressed. What steps are being taken to manage these issues?

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The Diversity of Retail Businesses. The many differences that exist across the various retail platforms—the products, the layout of the stores, material handling and the tools used to help make the store function, product display, and other factors—may make it more difficult to find and apply solutions and prevention strategies. These differences will influence the types of safety concerns that may be present, and how those concerns are addressed by the company and the workforce.

Omni-Channel Retailing. The demands that accompany more “just-in-time” delivery require that the supply chain be as efficient as possible. This puts additional pressure on the material-handling system. Employees may have to step into jobs that they are unaccustomed to, some of which are considered heavy work. They may also need to fill large orders in a short time period. Here is where the proper training and material-handling equipment must be available to ensure that the employees can safely and effectively perform multiple jobs along the supply chain.

Workers’ Compensation Costs and Potential Increase in Health Insurance Coverage. As a result of these factors and other risks and concerns, this can directly influence the cost of doing business and needs to be considered as a potential outcome. Management needs to develop solutions and preventive steps as a strategy for reducing or eliminating lost-work time injuries and additional costs.

Overcoming the Issues of Safety in the Workplace

The primary means of overcoming health-and-safety concerns is to invest in solutions. Certainly, this would include programs designed to prevent injuries and tools intended to reduce the risk of injury and increase productivity. But this would also include programs that help employees manage their general health and fitness. Programs that encourage employees to exercise properly, eat better, and make healthier choices can directly result in safer and more productive work environments.

The manufacturers of material-handling equipment are working with many WRT businesses to design specialized material-handling equipment that meets the needs of organizations with high rates of overexertion injuries. Research shows that those businesses that have invested in material-handling equipment are experiencing increases in productivity, fewer complaints of fatigue and overexertion injuries, and increases in the longevity of the most productive and experienced employees. As an additional benefit, with the appropriate material-handling equipment, those workers who could not previously handle the physical demands of certain tasks are now able to perform some of the more labor-intensive jobs that once were not possible for them to manage.

The primary source of information for businesses on any topic relevant to the Wholesale and Retail Trade sector, as well as related technical assistance is the NIOSH website. Some of the available solutions would include:

  • Research projects—The projects address various health-and-safety issues relevant to the retail industry. A number of the projects provide ideas for organizing and disseminating information and for the collection of injury and exposure data. Projects deal with topics known to be a concern of workers and employers in the retail sector.
  • NIOSH-funded research grants—NIOSH sponsors research and training efforts that support health-and-safety initiatives through its extramural programs, which complement the agency’s own efforts. These project grants could easily be tailored to include populations of workers and worksites in the retail industry and provide data and methods that would be of value in developing future requests for funding through the grant program.
  • Publications—NIOSH publications, white papers, pamphlets, and topic pages provide access to a broad range of web-based information on occupational safety and health. Typically, these publications contain introductory material and links to specific information and other resources related to the subject matter.
  • Research to Practice—Historically, NIOSH has been a leader in applying research into workplace solutions that reduce injury and illness. Research to Practice (r2p) is a NIOSH initiative focused on the transfer and translation of research findings, technologies, and information into highly effective prevention practices and products that are adopted in the workplace. The goal of r2p is to increase workplace use of effective NIOSH and NIOSH-funded research findings. NIOSH continues to focus research on ways to develop effective products, translate research findings into practice, target dissemination efforts, and evaluate and demonstrate the effectiveness of these efforts in improving worker safety and health.
  • Health hazard evaluations—Employees, employee representatives, or employers can ask NIOSH to help learn whether health hazards are present at their place of work. NIOSH may provide assistance and information by phone and in writing, or may visit the workplace to assess exposure and employee health. Based on the findings, recommendations will be made on ways to reduce hazards and prevent work-related illness. The evaluation is done at no cost to the company.
  • The WRT coordinator—NIOSH offers a designated coordinator who will work with organizations to gather information and/or services that can help make the workplace a safe environment. The coordinator can provide white papers, studies, and reports on nearly any safety topic that you may be seeking information on. Free copies of those reports will be made available and, if requested, a brief synopsis of the reports can be provided as well.
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Getting More Involved

NIOSH invites participation from retailers that wish to participate in various safety initiatives, as well as those that have an interest in serving as part of the sector council. The Wholesale and Retail Trade Sector Council consists of safety and loss control experts from a number of retail businesses, insurance and loss control representatives, researchers from universities who conduct studies on issues relevant to the WRT sector, and engineers from manufacturing companies who produce various types of powered-assisted, material-handling equipment.

Retailers can become more involved by contacting the WRT coordinator, or by visiting the NIOSH website. This would include potential participation in the WRT council, getting more involved in test studies, test stores, and similar projects, or simply to discuss an area of concern where additional information and/or study might prove beneficial to the retail industry.

Putting It All Together

To summarize, NIOSH is a federal organization that was specifically founded to help businesses mitigate health and safety in the workplace. We are not, nor are we directly affiliated with a regulatory organization, but rather serve as a research and development agency. There is a sector of the agency that is expressly designed to deal with health-and-safety concerns commonly dealt with in the retail industry, and we are consistently seeking to develop new or improved tools and strategies for controlling or eliminating these hazards.

NIOSH conducts independent research projects, but is also willing and capable of working with retail organizations individually or collectively to study and resolve safety concerns. We will create white papers and other informational products that can help companies to inform and train their employees. And, these resources are readily available free of charge for any retail business in the U.S. that is interested in improving safety in the workplace.

As the role of loss prevention has continued to evolve, there has been a trend in many retail organizations to consolidate certain responsibilities in order to improve efficiencies and maintain consistency. While safety is everyone’s concern, often the management of company safety programs can fall under the loss prevention umbrella. Understanding and making the best use of the resources that are available will only improve the quality of the workplace. For more information, please visit the NIOSH website at cdc.gov/niosh.

This article was first published in 2014 and updated in August of 2020.

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