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Virus, holidays pose safety challenges for shipping, distribution sectors

fulfillment center

Companies seeing an increase in online holiday shopping and shipping face myriad workplace safety challenges, from keeping up with evolving health and safety standards to hiring and training seasonal workers in environments that have seen upticks in injuries in recent years, experts say.

“There is already so much going on this year that’s making (safety) complicated,” said Chris Hayes, Hartford, Connecticut-based second vice president for risk control at Travelers Cos. Inc. “Hiring seasonal employees for the holidays is always complicated, and the current health issues with the virus are making it more difficult.”

“Each year distribution centers increase their reliance on short service workers to meet the holiday demand for e-commerce shopping,” said Kim Holly, Dallas-based senior vice president of business development at ISNetworld, a contractor and supplier management company. “This year, e-commerce has taken off at unprecedented rates, adding even more stress to these warehouses and fulfillment centers.”

Sixteen states now have in place COVID-19 training requirements for all workers, including training on personal protective equipment, social distancing, and information on how COVID-19 spreads.

Due to mounting pressure from workers organizations and publicity regarding the prevalence of serious workplace injuries in distribution centers, companies such as Seattle-based Amazon Inc. are facing higher scrutiny at a time when online shopping is peaking due to shutdowns, store closures and shoppers’ fear of exposing themselves to the virus, experts say.

In an investigative report published Sept. 29, the journalism site reported that leaked data showed Amazon logged 14,000 serious injuries across 150 U.S. warehouses in 2019; 33% higher than Amazon's injury rate in 2016, and almost twice the industry average. Amazon did not return requests for comment.

“Distribution centers are clearly taking note of the uptick in e-commerce but will be at risk of higher than usual incident rates if their safety culture and procedures aren’t built to scale with the growth of the company,” Ms. Holly said.

Such businesses in at least one state will be paying more for workers compensation insurance in coming years. The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries on Nov. 30 announced it would be placing fulfillment centers under their own classification, separate from general warehouses, starting on Jan. 1, 2021. The department said a “review of the warehouse classification concluded that fulfillment centers were more hazardous and were submitting claims more often, justifying establishing a separate risk class,” according to a spokesman.

A spokeswoman for the Boca Raton, Florida-based National Council on Compensation Insurance, which provides comp rate filings for 36 states, called the change in Washington an “interesting development,” adding that “NCCI continues to monitor changing jobs and how that may impact classification codes.”

Add COVID-19 to the hiring of novice workers — statistically more likely to be injured — to help with the holiday rush, and 2020 “is not the year you want to wing It,” Mr. Hayes said of safety requirements and training.

“The pace is pretty fast and it’s hectic,” said Amy Harper, Seattle-based senior director of workplace training and consulting for the National Safety Council. Employers “are just trying to figure out what they need to do and when. There are some companies that are doing better than others and are a little more prepared,” she said.

Atlanta-based United Parcel Service hired 100,000 seasonal workers this year to manage the holiday crunch.  The COVID-19 challenges are new but getting new workers on board with safety requirements is not, said David Keeling, the company’s Atlanta-based vice president for global health and safety.

“COVID just adds to our responsibilities and obligations to our employees, and new employees, onboarding them successfully,” Mr. Keeling said of UPS’s approach, which includes local safety groups aimed at training and educating workers and communities; providing workers with protective equipment; and maintaining policies for social distancing.

“There is a lot of time invested in safety training and a lot of that is invested in new employees,” he said.

The pandemic challenge is to train in smaller group settings — which UPS put in place in recent months — and to better “embrace technology” in providing training, said Todd Bradon, the company’s director of health and safety and injury prevention, also based in Atlanta.

The company is also urging seasonal workers to work with family, he said. It is not uncommon for married couples to work together as driver and assistant package handler on a truck, he said.

“People are bringing their bubble to work,” Mr. Bradon said. “I think one of the testimonials to doing it the right way is the number of workers bringing their friends and family to work. It tells you that those employees feel safe enough to do what they are doing.”

More insurance and workers compensation news on the coronavirus crisis here




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