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Look beyond self-checkout to support store cashiers

Wrist wrapped in a wrist brace

As an avid bargain hunter, I usually get along well with store cashiers. They appreciate a real score when they see one. We often bond when a cashier gets excited about an item I've found in the clearance cart, or when my receipt shows the amount I saved was several times the amount I spent.  Spent: $6. Saved: $43. We high-five over the counter as if our team had won.   

However, I'm concerned about a meme currently circulating on Facebook -- a poster that says, "NEVER SELF CHECKOUT." From Bread & Roses 1912 - 2012,  the poster text continues: "it's not convenient for me to help corporations fire workers so they raise their profits. I stand in line, and when the lines back up, the store calls more cashiers to the front. If we keep doing it, they'll have to hire more cashiers. NEVER SELF CHECKOUT."    

Bread & Roses reported that this meme had more adverse responses than anything else they'd ever posted, most replies saying that automation is inevitable. I have a different concern.

Cashiering injures workers. Soon after scanners were introduced, says the Healthday website, "a survey of supermarket cashiers in British Columbia indicated that 30 to 50 per cent of the workers were reporting arm, shoulder, neck, wrist, or back pain, often requiring medical treatment and time away from work."

In the U.S., the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)'s 2004 "Guidelines for Retail Grocery Stores" says the main workplace risk is MusculoSkeletal Disorders, or MSDs, which include:

  • Muscle strains and back injuries that occur from repeated use or overexertion;
  • Tendinitis;
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome;
  • Rotator cuff injuries (a shoulder problem);
  • Epicondylitis (an elbow problem); and
  • Trigger finger that occurs from repeated use of a single finger.

MSDs are also called "Cumulative Trauma Disorders," because they result from doing the same thing over and over in a slightly awkward position. Hovering over a hot scanner all day only looks like easy work.

First of all, in the U.S. and most of Canada except Quebec, cashiers have to stand up for their entire shift. Not many of us would choose to stand in one place for four hours at a stretch. Hiking with a heavy backpack for four hours would be easier, and healthier too.

Second, I have read in union releases and overheard in supermarkets that most companies would prefer to hire a lot of part-time workers and keep their hours low -- under $100 in earnings per week, at one store -- to avoid paying them benefits.

Third and last, with a swipe over the scanner and a plunge into a waiting plastic bag, the modern cashier's hand eliminates two jobs that other workers used to do: inventory control (the product code) and bagging. The direct interface with the computer does not eliminate physical demands, however.

"Studies indicate that cashiers may flick their wrists back and forth up to 600 times per hour," says the Healthday story. "In an eight-hour shift, it's not unusual for a grocery clerk to handle more than 6,000 pounds -- three tons -- of groceries..."  Although each full grocery bag may weigh only a few pounds, over a day they add up to three tons -- Cumulative Trauma.

In the U.S., OSHA offers a checklist of potential job-specific concerns for cashiers that include factors such as:

  • Are items within easy reach?
  • Are keyboard supports adjustable?
  • Can the cashier work with items at about elbow height?
  • Can the display be read without twisting?
  • Are objects easily scanned the first time?
  • Are objects scanned without twisting hand motions?
  • Does the cashier have an anti-fatigue mat and/or footrest?  

A "no" answer to any one of these questions could mean that the worker is at risk for injury.  If the workstation doesn't fit the worker, the worker's body pays a price. And eventually the employer does too. MSDs account for about three per cent of all Workers' Compensation lost-time claims, but about 30 per cent of Workers' Comp long-term payments.  

Since large-scale computerization in the 1990s was often followed by large-scale crashes of injured employees, health-care providers have made many attempts to find cures for common injuries. About a decade of the surgical approach demonstrated that nerves don't transplant well. Some patients found relief through active measures such as physiotherapy. Many others shied away from the exercise. When a comprehensive remedy proved elusive, doctors succumbed to pressure to prescribe opioids -- with socially catastrophic results. Injured workers are literally dying from drugs that were supposed to make them feel better.

On the other hand, prevention works! Altering the workplace to prevent MSDs is not only cost-effective, but often improves the employer's bottom line. Employers could conceivably invest in re-designing cashier stations, if there was a future for them. However, another factor is that the grocery market seems to be moving away from in-store shopping altogether, in favour of online selection and a delivery service -- perhaps soon, by drone.

Bread & Roses' meme was well-intentioned, and highlights yet again how much the digital revolution has disrupted our understanding of jobs. At the same time, I think that, given their druthers, most workers would prefer jobs that don't actually injure them. Self-scanners are the least of the harms being done to workers today.

Image: Bread & Roses

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