Tuesday, 15 March 2011 14:32

The Retail Industry

Rate this item
(0 votes)

The retail trade is the selling of goods to consumers. Enterprises sell everything from automobiles to clothing, from food to television sets. In many countries what once was an industry comprised mainly of small shops and stores, now largely consists of multinational conglomerates which own huge megastores competing for the global market. Competition and technological changes have changed job descriptions, the hazards associated with those jobs and the nature of the workforce itself.

In the developed nations, small retailers struggle to compete with large corporate retailers. In the United States, Canada and throughout the European Community and the Pacific Rim, the retail trade has moved from the city centre to suburban shopping malls. Instead of the neighbourhood “mom and pop” stores, multinational chain stores sell the same products and the same brand names, effectively limiting consumer choice of product and forcing competition out of the market by their buying power, advertising capabilities and lower prices. Many times a large store will take a loss on certain products in order to bring customers into a store; this technique frequently generates other sales.

In developing countries with predominantly agrarian economies, bartering systems and open marketplaces are still common. However, in many developing countries, the large multinational retailers are beginning to enter the retail market.

Each type of establishment has its own hazards. Retail work in developing countries and countries in transition is often very different from retail work in developed countries; conglomerates with large chain stores are not yet dominant and retail work is mainly conducted in an open-air market, in all types of weather.

There is a trend among multinational conglomerates to try and change employment conditions: trade unionism is discouraged, staff is reduced to a bare minimum, wages go down, stores predominantly hire part-time workers, the average age of the workforce is lowered and benefit packages diminish.

Throughout the world store opening hours have changed so that some establishments even remain open 24 hours a day, 7 days per week. In the past, a worker who worked late at night or on a holiday received extra compensation; now, premium pay for working those hours has been taken away as such long hours become the norm. In the US, for example, traditional holidays are now negotiable when the store stays open on a 24-hour, 7-day basis.

The changes in the nature of how business is conducted has forced several fundamental changes in the workforce. Since many jobs have been marginalized to part-time work, the jobs themselves require little skill and workers receive no training. Workers who once saw a career in retail work, now find themselves changing jobs frequently or even leaving the field of retail work, which has become short term and part time.

The size of the workforce in the retail industry is difficult to estimate. The informal sector plays a significant role in developing countries (see “Case Study: Outdoor Markets”). Many times, health and safety problems go unnoticed, are not recorded by government and are considered to be part of the job.

In many of the countries that do keep statistics, retail, wholesale and restaurant and hotel workers are grouped into one category. Statistics from around the world show that the percentage of people who work in the wholesale, retail, restaurant and hotel trades ranges from over 20% in some countries in Asia to less than 3% in Burkina Faso (see table 1 ). Although men outnumber women in the labour force, the percentage of women in the retail industry is higher in at least half of the countries for which statistics are available.

Table 1. Labour statistics in the retail industry (selected countries)


Men in the labour force (%)

Men in
and retail trade;
restaurants and
hotels (%)

Women in the labour force (%)

Women in
and retail trade;
restaurants and
hotels (%)

Total population in
wholesale and retail
trade; restaurants
and hotels (%)

Total number
of people

Injured people
in the retail
industry (%)

Burkina Faso








Costa Rica
































































































United Kingdom








United States








1 Including commuting accidents; including occupational diseases.
2 Including commuting accidents; establishments employing 100 or more workers.
3 The series related to the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany before 1990;
including commuting accidents.
4 Including occupational diseases;.including non-fatal cases without lost workdays.
5 Including commuting accidents; persons losing more than three workdays
per period of disability.
6 Including non-fatal cases without lost workdays.
7 Including commuting accidents; including occupational diseases;
including non-fatal cases without lost workdays.
8 Including commuting accidents.
9 Employees only; excluding traffic accidents; year beginning April, 1993.
10 Including occupational diseases.
Sources: Country reports: Costa Rica 1994; Greece 1992, 1994; Mexico 1992, 1996; Singapore 1994, 1995; Thailand 1994, 1995; Euro-FIET Commerce Trade Section 1996; ILO 1994, 1995; Price Waterhouse 1991.

Operations, Hazards and Prevention


Many cashiers work at mechanized registers that require them to punch a keypad thousands of times per day to ring up the price of the article. The key punching is usually done with the right hand while products are moved from in front of the cashier to the rear of the cashier for packaging with the left hand. These work activities frequently involve poorly designed workstations, causing cashiers to lift heavy products, reach extensively for products and frequently twist the body in order to move products from one area to another. This job function places different burdens on each side of the body, causing lower-back pain, upper-extremity illnesses and repetitive-motion illnesses including tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, tenosynovitis, thoracic outlet syndrome and hip, leg and foot problems.

Well-designed workstations, with automatic scanners, flexible work height conveyors, lowered bagging stations, extra personnel to bag the products and flexible seats (so that cashiers can sit to relieve lower-back and leg pressures) help eliminate upper- extremity pressures, strains and twisting motions.


Bar-code readers and hand-held scanners in supermarkets are generally Class 2 lasers, which produce infrared radiation in the wavelength range of 760 to 1,400 nm; they are considered nonhazardous unless there is prolonged viewing of the laser beam. A laser produces a high-intensity light which can damage the retina of the eye. The eyes are vulnerable to heat, have no heat sensors and do not dissipate heat efficiently. Recommended safe practices should include, at a minimum, training workers about the hazards of looking into the beam of light and the damage to the eye that can result. Baseline eye examinations should be included in a worker protection programme to ensure that no damage has occurred.


Retail clerks move large quantities of product from trucks to the loading dock and then to the shelves in the sales area of the store. Products come packaged in cartons of various weights. Manually unloading trucks and moving the product cartons to the front of the store may cause musculoskeletal problems. Pricing the items and placing them on the shelves puts tremendous pressure on the back, legs and neck. Using a pricing gun can cause carpal tunnel syndrome and other RSIs by putting excessive and repeated strain on the wrist, fingers and palm of the hand. Opening cartons with a knife or blade can lead to cuts on the hands, arms and other parts of the body. Cutting through cardboard with a dull knife requires extra pressure, which puts extra strain on the palms of the hands.

Mechanical lifting aids, such as fork-lift trucks, manual high-low trucks, dollies and carts help move items from one part of the store to another. Tables, scissor jacks and movable carts can help bring the items to a good height and help clerks place product on the shelves without back strain from lifting and twisting. Automated pricing guns or packaged goods already labelled will prevent wrist and upper extremity strains from repeated motions. Sharp knives will prevent forceful motions when opening cartons.

Meat cutters and delicatessen workers

Meat cutters and delicatessen workers work with saws, grinders, slicers and knives (see figure 1). When machine blades are not guarded, get jammed or become loose, fingers can be severed, cut, crushed or bruised. Machines must be securely anchored to the floor to prevent tipping and moving. Blades must be kept free of debris. If a machine is jammed, wooden devices should be used to unjam the machine with the power off. No machines should be unjammed with the power still on. Knives should be kept sharp to avoid problems in the wrists, hands and arms. The handles of knives, cleavers and clubs should be kept clean and unslippery.

Figure 1. Small-scale manual cutting of dried meet for local sale, Japan, 1989


L. Manderson

When meat is mechanically weighed and packaged on a styrofoam tray in a plastic film sealed with a heating element, vapours and gases from the heated plastic may cause “meat wrapper’s asthma” and eye, nose and throat irritation, difficulty in breathing, chest pains, chills and fever. Local exhaust ventilation (LEV) should be placed near the heating element so that these vapours are not breathed in by workers, but are vented outside the workplace.

Meat cutters enter and leave freezers many times during the day. Work clothing should include heavy clothing for freezer work.

Floors and walkways can become slippery from meat, grease and water. Slips, trips and falls are common causes of injury. All waste material must be carefully discarded and kept off walking surfaces. Walking and standing mats must be cleaned daily or whenever they become soiled.

Chemical exposures

Retail workers are increasingly exposed to hazardous chemicals in cleaning products, pesticides, rodenticides, fungicides and preservatives. Hardware store workers, automotive distributive workers and others are potentially exposed to hazardous chemicals because of the stock of paints, solvents, acids, caustics and compressed gases. The hazardous or toxic chemicals vary depending on the nature of the products that are stocked in each establishment. These can include materials not necessarily considered hazardous. Department store workers, for example, can develop sensitivities and allergies to perfumes that are sprayed as demonstrations.

Cleaning products that are used to clean surfaces in supermarkets and other retail establishments may contain chlorine, ammonia, alcohols, caustics and organic solvents. These products may be used by cleaning crews during the night shift, in stores without natural ventilation and when the mechanical ventilation system is not working at full capacity. These chemical products affect the body when used in the workplace in industrial strengths and amounts. Chemical safety information must be readily available in the workplace for workers to read. Chemical containers must be labelled with the name of the chemical and how the product affects the body, as well as which protective equipment must be used to prevent illness. Workers need to be trained about the health hazards associated with the use of chemicals, how the chemicals enter the body and how to avoid exposure.

Retail workers who set up shop on the street are exposed to exhaust from motor vehicle traffic, as are the back-of-the-store workers who inhale exhaust from idling delivery trucks in the truck bays. The incomplete combustion products in motor vehicle exhaust include, among other things, carbon monoxide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Exhaust gases and particulates affect the body is several ways. Carbon monoxide causes dizziness and nausea and acts as an asphyxiant, limiting the blood’s ability to use oxygen. Delivery trucks should turn off their engines while unloading. Mechanical general exhaust ventilation may be needed to vent the contaminated air away from workers. Routine scheduled maintenance and cleaning is needed to maintain the ventilation system.

Formaldehyde is frequently used on clothing and other textiles to prevent mildew. It can affect those who breathe it in. In stores with larger stocks of clothing and textiles without adequate natural or mechanical ventilation systems, formaldehyde gas can build up and irritate the eyes, nose and throat. Formaldehyde can cause skin and respiratory irritation and allergies and is considered a probable carcinogen.

Pesticides, rodenticides and fungicides are frequently used to keep vermin out of establishments. They can affect the nervous, respiratory and circulatory systems of human beings as well as insects, rodents and plants. It is important not to spray chemicals indiscriminately when people are present and to keep people away from sprayed areas until it is safe to enter them again. The pesticide applicator must be trained in safe work methods before pesticides are applied.

“Tight” buildings—those without windows that can open and without natural ventilation—are dependent on mechanical ventilation systems. These systems must provide an adequate exchange of air within the space and must include adequate fresh outdoor air. The air must be heated or cooled depending on the ambient temperature outside.


Personal hygiene is important in the retail industry, especially when employees handle food, money and hazardous chemicals. Toilets and washing and drinking facilities must be sanitary and available in areas where employees can use them while on duty. Facilities must have clean running water, soap and towels. Employees must be encouraged to wash their hands thoroughly after using the toilet and before returning to work. Clean, cool drinking water should be available throughout the work area. Good housekeeping is necessary to prevent vermin and accumulation of garbage. Trash should be picked up on a regular basis.

Sanitation facilities are difficult to maintain in open-air markets, but an attempt must be made to provide toilets and washing facilities.


In open-air markets, retail workers are exposed to the elements and subject to the problems relating to heat and cold. In supermarkets, cashiers often work at the front of the store close to the doors that the public uses to enter and exit, exposing cashiers to hot and cold air drafts. Air shields in front of the doors that go to the outside will help block drafts and keep the air temperature at the cash register consistent with the rest of the store.

Fire prevention

There are many fire hazards in retail stores, including locked or blocked exits, limited entry and exits, combustible and flammable materials and faulty or temporary electrical wiring and heating systems. If workers are required to fight a fire, they must be trained in how to call for help, use fire extinguishers and evacuate the space. Fire extinguishers must be of the appropriate type for the type of fire and must be inspected regularly and maintained. Fire drills are necessary so that workers know how to get out of the facility during an emergency.


A new trend in retail work, when the establishment is owned by a large conglomerate, is to change full-time work to part-time work. Many large retail stores are now staying open 24 hours per day, and many stay open every day of the year, forcing workers to work “unsocial” hours. Disruption of the internal biological clock which controls natural physical phenomena such as sleep, causes symptoms such as sleepiness, gastro-intestinal disturbances, headaches and depression. Changing shifts, working on holidays and part-time work cause emotional and physical stress on the job and at home. “Normal” family life is severely compromised and meaningful social life is restricted.

Late night hours are more and more prevalent, increasing the feeling of insecurity about personal safety and the fear of robberies and other types of violence on the job. In the United States, for example, homicide is a major cause of death on the job for women, with many of these deaths occurring during robberies. Handling money or working alone or during late night hours should be avoided. A regular review of security measures should be part of a violence prevention and security programme.

Part-time pay, with few or no benefits, increases job stress and forces many workers to find additional jobs in order to support their families and maintain health benefits.



Read 7125 times Last modified on Tuesday, 08 November 2011 00:47

" DISCLAIMER: The ILO does not take responsibility for content presented on this web portal that is presented in any language other than English, which is the language used for the initial production and peer-review of original content. Certain statistics have not been updated since the production of the 4th edition of the Encyclopaedia (1998)."


Office and Retail Trades References

American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). 1995. Current Statistics on White Collar Employees. Publication #95-3. Washington, DC: AFL-CIO, Department for Professional Employees.

Arnetz, BB. 1996. Techno-stress: A prospective psychophysiological study of the impact of a controlled stress reduction program in advanced telecommunications system design work. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 38(1):53-65.

Bequele, A. 1985. Workers in the rural and urban informal sectors in developing countries. In Introduction to Working Conditions and Environment, edited by J-M Clerc. Geneva: ILO.

Biener, L. 1988. Gender and Stress. New York: Free Press.

De Grip, A, J Hoevenberg, and E Willems. 1997. Atypical employment in the European Union. Int Labour Rev 136(1):49–71.

Euro-FIET Commerce Trade Section. 1996. Conference on Economic Transformation and Internationalisation in the Services and Finance Sectors of Central and Eastern Europe, April, Prague, Czech Republic.

Frankenhaeuser, M, U Lundberg, and M. Chesney. 1991. Women, Work, and Health: Stress and Opportunities. New York and London: Plenum Press.

Hetes, R, M Moore, and C Northheim. 1995. Office Equipment: Design, Indoor Air Emissions, and Pollution Prevention Opportunities. Washington, DC: US Environmental Protection Agency.

International Labour Organization (ILO). 1990a. International Standard Classification of Occupations: ISCO-88. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1990b. Telework. Conditions of Work Digest. Vol. 9(1). Geneva: ILO.

—. 1994. Yearbook of Labour Statistics. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1995. Yearbook of Labour Statistics. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1996. Child Labour: Targeting the Intolerable. Report VI(1), International Labour Conference, 86th Session. Geneva: ILO.

—. 1997. Working trends: Labour trends. World Work Mag ILO 19:26-27.

Karasek, RA. 1979. Job demands, job decision latitude, and mental strain: Implications for job design. Adm Sci Q 24:285–308.

—. 1990. Lower health risk with increased job control among white collar workers. J Organ Behav 11:171–185.

Maddi, SR and Kobasa, SC. 1984. The Hardy Executive: Health Under Stress. Homewood, IL: Dow Jones- Irwin.

Marsella, AJ. 1994. Work and well-being in an ethnoculturally pluralistic society: Conceptual and methodological issues. In Job Stress in a Changing Workforce. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Murphy, L and J Hurrell, Jr. 1995. Job stress interventions. In Managing Workplace Safety and Health: The Case of Contract Labor in the U.S. Petrochemical Industry. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). 1993. NIOSH Update: NIOSH Urges Immediate Action to Prevent Workplace Homicide. DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 94-101. Cincinatti, OH: NIOSH.

Perry, GF. 1996. Occupational medicine forum. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 38(4):339-341.

Price Waterhouse. 1991. Doing Business in Sweden. New York: Price Waterhouse.

Silvestri, G. 1993. The American workforce, 1992-2005: Occupational employment: Wide variations in growth. Monthly Labor Review (November).

Stellman, JM and MS Henifin. 1983. Office Work Can Be Dangerous to Your Health. New York: Pantheon Books.

Stout, N, EL Jenkins, and TJ Pizatella. 1996. Occupational injury mortality rates in the United States: Changes from 1980 to 1989. Am J Public Health 86(1):73-77.

Tagliacozzo, R and S Vaughn. 1982. Stress and smoking in hospital nurses. Am J Public Health. 72:441-448.