Chapter One.


1.1 The Birth of The Supermarket.

    During the last two decades the whole structure of the retail sector has been radically transformed. The United Kingdom has moved from being what Napoleon described as a "nation of shop-keepers", with innumerable small businesses, towards a supermarket culture, dominated by a hand full of large retailers.

    For almost a century, small, often family run, corner shops, with their high 'serve-over' counters, had been staffed mainly by men, who would select purchases for customers. They would then calculate the bill mentally or using paper and pencil. Such shops had traditionally served small tight knit communities. Shopping had been a social activity, usually performed by the lady of the house who would purchase small quantities of food regularly. But things were to change.

    Tastes for more exotic foods, and the increase in the number of ‘convenience foods’ meant that the number of grocery products increased enormously. Consumers demanded diversity and the small grocers businesses were unable to stock the increased ranges of items nor to guarantee availability.

    Changing patterns of employment coupled with increased mobility heralded the decline of such small businesses. Their replacements were big, bright, and brash, offering the customer greater choice, and competitively priced products and taking full advantage of efficiencies of scale.

    The developments of the supermarkets only became possible because of improvements in technology which created a new concept in retailing - the supermarket checkout.

    The retail industry has grown steadily in recent years and has become a major part of the UK economy. Today it consists of more than 200,000 businesses - all of which will have some form of till or checkout. With its supporting distribution infrastructure, the retail sector employs more than 2.5 million people and accounts for 23% of the UK’s economy (British Retail Consortium 1997).

    The number of people employed as supermarket checkout workers has also grown steadily over this period according to details published by the Technology Foresight Panel On Retail & Distribution (1994).

    The Office of Population Censuses and Surveys (OPCS) reported that in 1981, 83,000 people were employed as either retail shop cashiers or checkout or cash wrap operators. In 1985 the number, according to OPCS was estimated to be some 96,000. By 1993 the Health & Safety Executive estimated that the 1981 figure had doubled (HSE 1993).

    At present the number of Supermarket sales assistants and checkout operators in Great Britain is approximately 220,000 (Office for National Statistics in HSE 1998 pp 32). More than two thirds of this number are thought to be female (around 146 thousand) and of these workers about two thirds (approximately 97 thousand) are part time employees.


    The UK the retail sector is dominated by just a hand full of companies. They are large employers as the table below indicates.

Table 1 Top UK Food Retailers and Retail Sales Figures, Branch & Employee Numbers 1996.


Supermarket Chains UK Retail Sales * ( Million)

Number of ** Branches

Number of ** Employees

J Sainsbury
















Somerfield (Inc. Food Giant & Gateway)




Kwik Save







Wm Morrison





Data Source: * The Retail Rankings - 1997 Edition, Corporate Intelligence on Retailing as in

British Retail Consortium: Retail World, Summer 1997 pp6.

** Healey & Baker Retail Directory 1997.


At the present time the ‘big four’ retailers (Sainsbury's, Tesco, Safeway, and Asda) account for 50% of the retail food sales, whilst the 'discounters' - stores such as Kwik Save, Aldi, and Netto supply about 10% of this market.



1.2 Supermarket Checkouts and Worker Welfare.

Major concerns for the welfare of checkout workers were first voiced by safety professionals in the mid 1980’s. It was suggested that the operation of some checkouts was associated with high levels of musculoskeletal disorders, principally affecting the lower back, upper arm-neck-shoulder region and in the hand/wrist area (HSE 1989).

Local Authority Environmental Health Officers had brought instances of poor working conditions to the attention of the Health & Safety Executive (HSE). They sought ergonomics information and advice on enforcement consistency. The volume and nature of requests prompted HSE to begin to compile technical guidance on the matter.

The topic was also the subject of a growing body of scientific literature (Thorne & Russell, 1987; Wilson & Gray 1984; Margolis & Kraus, 1987a&b) and the subject of study by Environmental Health Officers, a dissertation being written by Peter Lord in 1987, and a detailed investigation made by Edinburgh City Council in 1988 (City of Edinburgh District Council 1988)


Ten years on, there remains evidence that workers still experience discomfort, and that a number have become injured whilst working at checkouts. Claims for compensation from workers are known to have increased (Marras et. al. 1991). Although the technology now exists to improve checkouts the pace of change remains slow, and it would appear that this is not an area which is being targeted by Environmental Health Officers to promote improvements in worker welfare.


1.3 Aims & Objectives Of This Study

This study aims to answer three questions:

1. What are the health risks which researchers have identified as being associated with checkout design and operation ?

2. How familiar are Environmental Health Officers of these risks, and what action are they taking to encourage them to be addressed ?

3. Is there a need for guidance or additional regulation to ensure effective and uniform protection of checkout worker health and safety ?

To address these aims the document is divided into the following sections:

Chapter Two, and Appendix One, explore the design of supermarket checkouts, early concerns expressed by researchers, and the health effects and possible injuries which have been linked to checkout work. It concludes by looking in some detail at the findings of recent research by the Health & Safety Executive. This section addresses the first aim.

Chapter Three considers why Retailers, Shop Workers, and Environmental Health Officers may perceive the risks posed by checkouts, differently, and how this may affect the action they take. In the absence of any published material investigating the way in which Environmental Health Officers deal with enforcement of checkout safety issues, this chapter proposes that this is a suitable area for further study.

Chapter Four discusses the choice of methodology for this study and Chapter Five details the results of the survey. This addresses the second aim.

Chapter Six investigates if the supermarket checkout is a passing phenomenon, and, if it is to stay, how it could be redesigned and operated to reduce risks to workers.

The final chapter, Chapter Seven, investigates if there is still a need for guidance on this subject - the study’s final aim, and makes a number of recommendations based upon issues raised in this study.

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