With more than 1 million people employed in warehouses and storage facilities in the United States, warehouses play a critical role in the flow of goods and services that fuel our economy. But the work can be hazardous, and vigilance is required. Here we’ll review the hazards facilities managers should be aware of, alongside solutions, with the focus on tips and best practices to keep your warehouse operations safe.
Despite growing sophistication around the role of warehouse facilities in the logistics industry, the basic fact is unchanged. A warehouse is a primary storage facility for a business that has product to sell. Goods travel from the manufacturer or farmer to the warehouse, then on to distributors, shippers, stores, and customers.
Warehouse workers process and receive goods, unload, organize inventory, catalog what comes in, and pick and pack orders. As well, they break down bulk materials, label them, and load trucks. The work can be messy and dirty, especially when food and liquid are involved. That’s why keeping warehouses clean, dry, and free of housekeeping hazards is essential to employee protection.
OSHA regulates many activities that take place in warehouses, including housekeeping, material handling, forklift use, fire protection, chemical safety, electrical safety, personal protective equipment (PPE), ladders, slips and falls, and storage and use of hazardous materials. According to the agency, the top 10 OSHA violations in warehouses address:
- Hazard communication
- Electrical—wiring methods
- Electrical—system design
- Guarding floor and wall openings and holes
- Mechanical power transmission
- Respiratory protection
- Portable fire extinguishers
Hazard review—Risks and remediation
Some people mistakenly believe that warehouse facilities are relatively controlled and protected environments, without the hazards present in construction and manufacturing environments. But in fact, with so many types of work and so many moving parts, hazards are present in nearly every area of a warehouse operation.
Kentucky Employers’ Mutual Insurance is the state’s largest provider of workers’ comp coverage. Its assessment of warehouse hazards includes the following hazards and solutions for eliminating or reducing them:
Docks. Opportunities for injury exist at loading docks when employees fall, when products fall on or strike workers, or when a forklift runs off the dock.
- Drive forklifts slowly and cautiously.
- Keep the forklift clear of dock edges.
- Provide visual warnings near dock edges.
- Rope off areas where employees could fall 4 feet or more, such as exposed or open bay doors.
- Prohibit employees from jumping from docks.
- Secure dock pallets and ensure they can safely support the load.
- Ensure ladders and stairs used at docks meet OSHA guidelines.
Forklifts. Forklift turnover accounts for the majority of forklift-related fatalities. Depending on the size and scope of your warehouse, you may have significant forklift traffic.
- Properly train, evaluate, and certify all forklift operators.
- Do not allow anyone under the age of 18 to operate a forklift.
- Implement a preventive maintenance and inspection program to ensure fork trucks are in good working order.
- Inspect forklifts before each use.
- Report, tag, and remove defective forklifts from service until they are repaired.
- Require operators to wear a seat belt at all times.
- Follow safe operating procedures for picking up, putting down, and stacking loads.
- Never handle loads that are heavier than the forklift’s capacity.
- Always drive safely, never exceeding 5 miles per hour.
- Slow down in congested areas and where there are slick or slippery surfaces.
- Prohibit horseplay and stunt driving.
- Prohibit operators from driving up to employees or others standing in front of fixed objects like a wall or shelving.
- Maintain safe clearances for aisles, loading docks, and passageways.
- Maintain engine exhaust gases below acceptable limits through ventilation.
- Train employees on the hazards associated with combustion by-products of forklift use.
- Protect open pits, tanks, vats, and ditches by using covers or guardrails.
- Attach all manufacturers’ labels with load capacities to the forklift.
Conveyors. Conveyors present pinch-point and nip-point hazards. Employees can be struck by falling objects, and they may develop musculoskeletal disorders through repetitive motions or awkward positions.
- Inspect conveyors on a regular basis.
- Guard pinch points.
- Prohibit wearing of jewelry or loose clothing near conveyors.
- Prohibit riding on a conveyor or crawling across or under it.
- Develop and implement proper procedures for locking out conveyors, and train employees on them.
- Maintain proper lighting and proper working surfaces in areas near conveyors.
Material storage and handling. Improperly stored material can fall on employees, resulting in injury or death.
- Stack loads evenly and straight.
- Place heavier loads on lower-to-middle shelving.
- Do not stack items high enough to block sprinklers or come in contact with overhead lights or pipes.
- Remove objects from shelves one piece at a time.
- Keep aisles and passageways clear, and ensure safe clearances for equipment. Properly mark aisles.
- Store materials that are bagged, contained, or in bundles in tiers that are stacked, blocked, interlocked, and limited by height.
- Provide guardrails and other covers to protect employees from stairs and other types of openings.
Ladders. Depending on your warehouse layout, ladders may be required to reach the top of shelves or racks. Choosing the right ladder for the job and using it for its intended purpose will reduce the chance for injury.
- Inspect ladders before use, and never use a defective ladder.
- Do not use a metal ladder around electricity.
- Always place ladders on firm and level surfaces.
- The feet of a ladder should be a distance from the wall that equals one-fourth of its length. For example, set the bottom of a 12-foot ladder 3 feet from the wall. Do not place a ladder against a window, unlocked door, loose boxes, or anything unstable.
- Ensure that the bottom of the ladder is secure, or have someone hold it.
Packing and unpacking. Warehouse workers are often charged with packing and unpacking materials or merchandise. Cutting tools must be used safely and with caution. Metal and plastic strapping can also pose a risk.
- Train employees on how to properly hold the cutting tool to avoid cutting themselves or others.
- Never leave a blade open or leave it on the floor, table, or drawer.
- War heavy gloves and goggles when attaching or removing strapping.
- Use cutting tools that will not leave sharp edges.
- Do not lift material by the strapping unless it was designed for lifting.
- Place strapping with the proper tension—not too loose or too tight.
- When removing straps, use one hand to hold the strap down and the other to cut it.
- Place straps in the appropriate trash container, and do not leave them lying on the floor, where they can become a trip hazard.
Hazard communication. The presence of hazardous chemicals in your facility opens up the possibility of injuries from spills.
- Develop a written program that addresses hazard determination, data sheets, labeling, disposal, and employee training.
- Maintain a safety data sheet (SDS) for each chemical to which workers are exposed, and make the sheets readily available to all employees.
- Develop a plan to maintain a current list of hazardous chemicals and a system to ensure that each incoming chemical has an SDS.
- Train employees on proper spill and disposal procedures.
- Provide PPE for handling chemicals and spills. Conduct a hazard assessment to determine what PPE is needed.
- Store chemicals securely, safely, and away from forklift traffic; store according to manufacturers’ recommendations and local and national fire codes.
- Provide outside contractors with a complete list of chemicals in use.
- Make sure local fire and emergency response organizations know your facility, its layout, and the chemicals present.
Much of the risk and many of the injuries associated with warehousing—notably strains and pulled muscles—are a result of manual lifting and handling. Many musculoskeletal disorders may be caused by repetitive motion, improper lifting techniques, or poor workplace design.
Make sure your training addresses these general ergonomic principles.
- Whenever possible, eliminate the need for manual lifting by using forklifts, pallet jacks, and other equipment.
- Reposition shelves or bins to reduce lifts from the ground and from shoulder height.
- Always use the legs to lift, keeping the back in a neutral position.
- Before lifting, check to estimate the size and bulk of the load to determine if and how the weight may shift.
- Get a good grip before lifting; if the load is too heavy, call for help.
- Do not shift at the waist while carrying the load; instead, pivot with the feet and take small, sure steps.
- Keep floors clear of all slip, trip, and fall hazards.
- When planning a job, factor safe work practices into the mix.
Scott Stone is director of Marketing for Cisco-Eagle, producer of conveyor and material-handling systems, including ergonomic lifting systems that reduce the lifting, bending, stretching, reaching, and pushing required to manipulate materials. Stone says manual material handling is an important contributor to more than 500,000 reported annual cases of strains and stress in the shoulders, backs, arms, and legs.
“Companies pay for poor ergonomics in the plant through worker compensation. Many of our clients treat ergonomics as seriously as they do accident prevention, which is the rational thing to do,” he says.
‘Good ergonomics is a win-win’
And whether it’s the warehouse or the production floor, Stone sees a close connection between ergonomics and productivity. “Research makes it clear that a program of ergonomic improvements can reduce physical demands and increase operational productivity,” he adds.
Good ergonomics benefits employees as well as product placement material flow and processes. Employers and safety professionals should be on the lookout for hazards like floor-level lifting, stretching to reach loads above or below the arm level, and tasks that put workers in positions that require excessive bending or stretching over long periods.
Stone recommends rotating and tilting loads toward workers to discourage awkward reaches by using rotation tables, pallet positioners, carts, and other equipment. The ideal setup is a rotating/lifting combination that presents workers with the load in the best possible position. Tilters can help dump or load bulk loads, making it easier on those processing them, rather than requiring them to reach into deep bins. Platforms, steps, and ladders can also reduce reaching. Portable or fixed work platforms help employees use what’s known as the “power zone”—the area between the knees and the shoulders. Another way to keep the load in the power zone is by using adjustable height workstations.
Stone explains that the purpose of most “goods-to-person” picking systems is to increase pick speeds. “But one of the reasons speeds are increased,” he adds, “is that workers aren’t wearing themselves out reaching deep into shelves, or trotting around a warehouse.” While it’s unlikely that a business would install a vertical lift module strictly for ergonomics purposes, the ergonomic benefits of such a system would become immediately apparent.
Are these on your best practices checklist?
- Walk the warehouse or plant floor and look for awkward postures. Are people routinely stooping or stretching to pick an order, reach an area, or assemble something? Pay attention to postures that may just look wrong, even though you can’t technically describe the problem.
- Monitor the workflow for repetitive motion. If a task requires carrying or lifting all the time, it’s time to examine the task with an eye to revising it.
- Find and reduce forceful exertions. “Heavy-duty lifting and manipulation of heavy loads is a workers’ compensation case waiting to happen,” Stone states. Loads should be of a type and size that anyone in the facility (“whether they’re built like a linebacker or ballerina”) could handle safely.
- Look for pressure point problems. Note if workers lean against hard parts or surfaces that may have sharp edges.
- Avoid static postures. Static postures are harmful. Any fixed position or posture, including standing in the same position throughout a shift, is ergonomically unsound.
- Monitor available information, and engage your workers. Review written records of strains and other injuries, workers’ compensation data, OSHA 300 logs, etc. Call a team meeting to discuss ergonomics. Ask workers where the problem areas are, and partner with them to find solutions.
Don’t forget about housekeeping
Many warehouse managers are neat freaks who live for order. Accommodating their obsession isn’t the only reason for paying attention to following the rules in the warehouse. Consider these real incidents:
- A fire and subsequent explosion destroyed a warehouse and caused the evacuation of thousands of nearby residents. Lack of proper segregation in the storage of chemicals caused the fire to spread rapidly and violently.
- A customer visiting a warehouse suffered two broken legs when he was run over by a forklift going in reverse. The severity of one of the breaks resulted in an amputation.
- An employee was crushed under a 4,000-pound crate that fell from a forklift. The worker was spotting the unsecured crate, which fell when the forklift passed over an uneven docking plate.
Benchmark your practices against these housekeeping basics:
- Keep aisles unobstructed, as cluttered aisles can impede evacuation and cause falls.
- Promptly clean up spills, as slippery, wet, or icy floors frequently cause falls.
- Encourage employees to report unstable or uneven walking surfaces.
- Repair broken lights so they can be repaired.
- Keep floors clean and free of slip and trip hazards, including stray cords, liquids, and other potential hazards.
- Clearly mark aisles and passageways, including doorways and loading dock areas, and keep them clear at all times. One effective way to bring attention to hazardous zones is by using tape or painting black and white stripes on the floor of the designated area.
- When planning a lift, check the route to ensure no obstacles are in the way.
Finally, make sure you have a warehouse-specific emergency plan that describes what is expected of employees in the event of an emergency or disaster. As part of the plan, your employees need to be trained on:
- When and how to call 911 or other emergency responders;
- The location of emergency exits and evacuation procedures, including where to gather after the building is evacuated, and procedures to account for all employees and visitors;
- The location and use of fire extinguishers and other emergency equipment, and who is trained to use them and when; and
- Procedures for reporting incidents to management, including after-hours phone numbers and the type of incidents that should be reported.