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A worker is only as good as his tools, goes the old saw (no pun intended) -- and this adage holds doubly true in food retailing, where issues that range broadly, from safety and health to efficiencies and finances, make the proper choice and application of equipment critical on nearly a moment-to-moment basis.
From the entrance of the store to the depths of the back room, equipment abounds in and surrounds the retail grocery world. This Progressive Grocer Special Report reviews the state of the art in the areas of accident prevention, cleaning and sanitation, and food safety.
Food retailing is a highly public industry, and today's food consumer is better educated than ever before on many of these issues, making the need for new and improved equipment, and the processes to maximize its use, all the more important.
An ounce of prevention
Accidents are a liability, but the right gear and training can cut the risks.Reaching financial goals is hard enough in retailing, without having to deal with the aftermath of workplace and in-store injuries. Thus, it's no accident that setting up a comprehensive injury prevention regimen, including specialized equipment, gear, and education, is among the smartest investments a grocer can make.
There's plenty of evidence of incidents adding insult to injury. Here's one rule of thumb: Liberty Mutual has found that a company with $100,000 of costs related to workplace injuries will have to produce an additional $2 million in revenue just to cover the attendant expense -- and that's assuming a 5 percent profit margin. With food retailing margins being significantly lower, the additional revenue needed would be that much higher.
Another way of viewing the issue: Wal-Mart stores receive 100 million visitors a week, and Wal-Mart gets sued almost once every two hours, every day of the year. Most of the suits are related to slip-and-fall accidents.
Nationwide, more than 58 percent of customer injuries, and 30 percent of worker injuries, are due to slips. The Food Marketing Institute says that in the United States each year, an average of 7.75 claims per 1 million supermarket customers are filed due to slips and falls.
Grocery stores around the country spend $450 million annually to defend against slip-and-fall claims. Nationwide the average slip-and-fall claim is for $3,900, while the cost to litigate a lawsuit has reached $100,000. The cost of risk for retail food stores averages $4.57 per $1,000 of revenue, according to a RIMS Benchmark Study, Risk & Insurance Society.
All of the statistics add up to plenty of motivation for finding and using tools to prevent in-store and workplace accidents in the first place.
Several companies have developed products and processes to take a bite out of slip-and-fall payouts, both to customers and employees. Some of the most intriguing incorporate sophisticated processes for perfecting the age-old task of minding the store.
Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Trax Retail Solutions, for one, has launched SmartStore SweepTrax, which provides a structured, simple set of tools to automate and document any and all store safety inspection activities. Bar codes are placed at strategic locations throughout the store, and as an employee walks from location to location, the condition of floors is observed and monitored by scanning the bar code after the section has been cleaned.
Results of the store inspection are then uploaded to corporate risk management for record-keeping, and special alerts are automatically sent to warn managers at all levels of potentially unsafe conditions.
The system of scanning and alerts is apparently working for Superior Super Warehouse in Los Angeles. The chain has seen a significant decrease in slip-and-fall claims since it has rolled out SweepTrax in all of its 20 stores.
"SweepTrax allows us to measure the sweepers' work and give them a sense of direction by designating an efficient sweeping pattern to follow," says David Ortega, claims manager of Superior Super Warehouse.
Another product designed to cut slips and falls in supermarkets is GleasonESP, which is currently in place in over 500 stores. GleasonESP, developed by Gleason Technology, a subsidiary company of Gleason Insurance in Johnstown, Pa., consists of two hand-held data retrievers, which collect store information; one exception card, which identifies hazards and documents responses; and one transmitter, which electronically relays information to Gleason's risk management department, or that of the retailer. There are also location sensors -- "buttons" -- at strategic places.
At McCaffrey's, a three-store New Jersey independent that has had the system for six years, managers use the Gleason system for hourly store walk-throughs.
"There is an electronic hand-held device that the assistant store manager or porter carries, and touches each sensor as they tour the building," explains Mark Eckhouse, general manager at McCaffrey's. "The touches are recorded in the hand-held device, and when it's replaced in its cradle, it transmits the information to a monitoring company. They give us reports of the walk-throughs every month."
Part of the beauty of such automated systems is how they incorporate accountability at the store level. "This is a lot better in making sure they check on the overall store, and for having proof that it's been done," says Eckhouse. "We can monitor our managers and make sure they are staying on top of the program and that all the store checks are being done."
However, the technological slip-and-fall foil is no substitute for solid daily store maintenance practices. Says McCaffreys' Eckhouse: "The floors, including prep areas, are swept, cleaned, and polished every night. We have porters in each of the stores whose function it is to do cleanups and continuously be on the floor. They respond as soon as we know of a problem. We use carpets in the sales areas and work areas, along with rubber mats in some of the work areas."
Still, accidents happen, in which case, Eckhouse says, additional measures kick in. "We first attend to the individual involved, and see if they need medical attention. Then we record all information and take photos. We investigate the cause and document everything. The report is sent to headquarters, and claims are processed from there."
At such stages, the automated monitoring system also serves as a decent backup.
"When we bring GleasonESP sweep logs to court, there is no way that they can say we were negligent," says Joe Miller, loss prevention manager at 15-store Lofinos Marketplace, based in Dayton, Ohio, another Gleason customer. "We show that we have a process and a third party recording the data."
There are other ways to prevent slip-and-fall incidents that don't require elaborate technological fixes. Quincy, Mass.-based Stop & Shop has what it calls "caught in the act" programs, which reward employees when they're spotted doing things like picking up an accident hazard.
Also, with many supermarket managers receiving bonuses based on profits, chargebacks to their store P&Ls for customer accidents are an effective way to get them out on the floor looking for hazards and checking to see that associates are heads up, too -- or heads down, as the case may be.
Jamie Hershberger, safety coordinator at three-store Stauffers of Kissel Hill in Lititz, Pa., has an interesting take on slip-and fall incidents.
It seems that no matter what the company did, slips and falls in its Rohrerstown, Pa. store remained a problem. Taking a good look at the area's demographics, management saw that there was an abundance of nursing homes, and thus a larger number of older shoppers in that particular store. Taking that thinking even further, it saw that many seniors shuffle rather than walk, and that it was the mats in the store -- safety mats, no less -- that were actually causing the seniors to stumble when they went from a smooth floor to a mat. Up went the mats, and down came the accident rates.
Floor care helps, too. Johnson's Wax and Butcher's, for instance, make products that result in clean, shiny floors with good traction, and Betco has a line of seven floor care products to combat slips and falls.
Stripping floors is a potentially dangerous job for floor care technicians. Floor stripper formulations are concentrated products that can be potentially dangerous on direct contact. If technicians are careless when diluting the product, it can splash into eyes or onto skin. Chemical burns aren't immediately noticeable, so it can be hours before the worker realizes he or she was burned.
Sturtevant, Wis.-based JohnsonDiversey's RTD dispensing system, unlike a wall-mounted dispenser, is mounted right on the bottle of the product, and then hooked to a water source with a hose. By turning a dial to the desired dilution, the dispensing system automatically measures the required ratio of chemical to water in the solution.
There have been advances in the flooring industry, including nonskid tiles, and carpeting and mats for high-accident areas. Safety has become a store design function as well, as reflected in wider aisles and brighter lighting.
Then there's the crucial point when the rubber meets the tile, so to speak. McCaffrey's requires associates to wear soft rubber-soled shoes in the deli, meat, bakery, and prepared food departments, as well as in the kitchens. Industrial shoe makers have thus found a lucrative market in food retailing.
One such supplier is West Palm Beach, Fla.-based Shoes For Crews, founded in 1984. Its footwear features the patented SFC III Slip-Resistant Outsole, formulated from a unique compound that grips the microscopic roughness of a floor surface and has a grid pattern that channels liquids away from the bottom of the sole.
In 1989 Shoes For Crews introduced a nationwide payroll deduction program for its footwear, and if anyone slips while wearing its shoes, the firm will pay that company $5,000 for each paid worker's compensation.
Many companies are using semiotics -- signs and symbols -- to warn customers and associates of hazards. Atlanta-based Rubbermaid, for instance, has a line of floor safety signs and pop-up safety cones for store use.
In many stores, too, digital video recording, or DVR, is being used both to monitor store safety and furnish legal evidence. Robert "Rooney" Gleason III, president of Gleason Technology, says, "Many stores can just pull up a picture of the area, and a lot of times they can find a picture of the actual accident."
The food-handling and -processing equipment in today's grocery store is being increasingly manufactured with employee safety in mind. Troy, Ohio-based Hobart's 2000 Series of slicers has a safety feature that prevents users from inadvertently starting the device, and slicers are being developed with ergonomically enhanced designs to reduce operator fatigue. For instance, models from Piscataway, N.J.-based Bizerba USA are equipped with wide hand-guards of fracture-proof, transparent, and food-safe plastic.
Back injuries are a common and expensive problem. One method to reduce back injuries is to reduce the weight that employees have to handle. Stop & Shop switched to lightweight plastic pallets, which weigh 20 pounds, rather than wooden pallets' 60 to 70 pounds. Management justified the switch on the basis of reducing workers' compensation costs. According to Stop & Shop, the lighter pallets have produced savings in other areas, like splinter and puncture wound decreases and decreased pallet repair costs.
King Kullen Grocery Co. in Bethpage, N.Y. initiated a threefold approach to effectively manage checkout repetitive-motion concerns. First, the company initiated training for cashiers, store managers, and management personnel. It focused training for checkers on awareness of repetitive-motion issues, good work practices, and the value of early reporting.
Second, King Kullen changed the design of its checkout stations and scanners. The changes included use of a combined scanner and scale to reduce lifting and twisting arm motions, and locating the scanner directly in front of the cashier to reduce torso twisting. Finally, King Kullen worked to return injured employees to work as soon as possible. Under the company's program, a nurse contacts the injured employee within 48 hours of the injury and monitors his or her care until the employee returns to work.
Keep it clean
Store sanitation can pay big dividends.
It's been difficult to ignore the headlines trumpeting recent cases of foodborne illness, and the accompanying recital of the various microorganisms threatening the food industry and consumers, including E. coli, salmonella, listeria, mad cow disease, and avian flu, to name just a few.
Much less publicized, but just as acute and potentially costly when they occur, are the in-store accidents suffered by both customers and associates.
Both of these profit eaters have one thing in common: Regular and effective store cleaning and sanitation can go a long way toward decreasing their occurrences.
The rub is that sanitation practices -- or the lack of them -- at the store level are starting to edge their way into the consciousness of a consuming public more concerned than ever about the spread of harmful germs.
"The public is much more aware of food safety and sanitation today," says Barry Parsons, the assistant general manager and food safety coordinator at Stauffers of Kissel Hill (SKH), a three-store operation headquartered in the Pennsylvania Dutch community of Lititz. "You need to do it."
Parsons is also an instructor at Penn State University, with certification in HACCP, the National Restaurant Association's ServSafe program, and the Food Marketing Institute's Supersafe Mark. He teaches both programs at the university, and thus knows well what he's talking about.
At each SKH store, says Parsons, thoroughness is routine -- and the job is considered a solid investment in the company.
"We have a maintenance person who starts at 6:00 in the morning, and basically takes care of everything throughout the day, and every single night we have a maintenance crew redo every single floor and dry-mop all the corners and edges."
The floors are gone over with a ride-on machine with bristle pads on the bottom. It squirts out water, floor cleaner, and shiner. The brushes loosen the dirt with water, which is then squeegeed by the machine.
The floors are also buffed four nights a week and shined on a regular basis, notes Parsons.
"We go through the store at least twice a year to strip and rewax the floors with at least three layers," he goes on. "Regular buffing, if you do it properly, will put a beautiful shine on it. My guesstimation is that floors will last 10 to 12 years if you take care of them properly. Regular maintenance saves you money in the long run."
SKH works with daily, weekly, and monthly cleaning charts. The company follows and documents the four-hour rule, breaking down slicers and cleaning them every four hours.
Pennsylvania law requires one person in each establishment to be sanitation-certified, but SKH has certified every store and department manager in the company; even some of the owners and buyers are ServSafe-certified. The retailer recently completed PIC (person in charge) sanitation and food safety training for 28 employees as well.
In Parsons' view, not surprisingly, cleaning and sanitation is "a continuous issue."
On the floor, SKH aisle people carry towels, squirt bottles, and dusters. There's a cleaning schedule for the back room, and at the registers there's what the company calls "Basic H" (for "health") with disinfectant and papers towels for cleaning during the day. The register belts are scrubbed every night, too, says Parsons.
By the shopping cart area are a hand gel sanitizer and hand wipes to wipe off the cart handles, which can carry germs. "We were one of the first companies to do that," notes Parsons.
Sanitation and cleanup in meat and other food preparation areas remain a high priority in food retailing. While government regulations haven't become stricter, the individual stores have become more proactive. Major cleanups are now done between one and three times a day in many stores, and meat department equipment such as saws, grinders, and cutters are disassembled, washed, rinsed, and sanitized before a change of species, and usually before the next shift begins. Most supermarkets equip their back rooms with a high-pressure hose sprayer to wash down all surfaces during major cleanups.
Cleaning occurs much more frequently in the deli -- about every four hours -- and many delis have a three-compartment sink and mechanical dishwashers to perform the wash, rinse, and sanitize cycle.