Warehouse Stock Plenty of Hazards
Today’s warehouses and distribution facilities have little in common with their counterparts from a generation ago. Facilities from both eras serve as places where products and materials are stored until needed and shipped, but the image of dark, cramped buildings and stacks of boxes is no longer accurate.
Walk into a contemporary warehouse or distribution center, and you’ll be in a brightly lit space with ceilings that stretch 30 or more feet high. Sophisticated conveyor networks, robotic forklifts, and computer-controlled picking and packing machinery have supplanted much of the manual labor .
Despite that, OSHA reports that the warehousing industry has a higher fatal injury rate than the national average for all industries. Why? The primary reason appears to be the wide variety of hazards that exist. Let’s examine some of the most common hazards and steps that can be taken to reduce the risk.
OSHA says that, across all industries, forklift accidents kill about 100 workers and injure 95,000 more every year. Many of the fatalities are the result of turnover accidents. Training and certification of operators is an important step, as is maintaining the forklift and checking it for hazardous conditions.
Forklift drivers should wear seatbelts and always stay below 5 mph, or even slower on slippery surfaces and in congested areas. Drivers should follow safe procedures for lifting and stacking loads, and ensure that they do not exceed the forklift’s operating capacity. Facilities need to maintain safe clearances in areas where forklifts operate. That’s especially true in aisles of today’s taller warehouses, because a forklift that damages a lower section of shelving could cause higher sections to fall. Drivers also need to be careful around loading docks and near open pits, vats, and tanks.
If forklifts are powered by combustion, steps need to be taken to minimize the potential for hazardous gases such as carbon monoxide. Adequate ventilation must be provided, and workers should be trained to recognize the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Some forklifts and other material handling equipment are powered by large batteries, and warehouses that use such equipment typically have charging stations for swapping depleted batteries for fully charged ones. Operators need to be trained in all procedures related to changing batteries, such a positioning the forklift properly and applying the brakes. Because lead-acid batteries can vent gases or leak (and occasionally explode), proper personal protective equipment such as rubber gloves and eye protection should be used (with an eyewash station nearby), and fire extinguishers should be available.
The locations where trucks and railcars are loaded and unloaded present a variety of hazards. Most injuries at docks result when a forklift runs off the dock, when equipment strikes workers, or when poorly stacked materials fall on workers.
It’s important to make sure that dock plates are properly secured and are rated to handle the weight being moved over them. Visual warnings should be placed near the edges of docks and operators should steer clear of the edges. In particular, they should never back up to the edge. Workers should use ladders and stairs, rather than jumping off of docks.
Conveyor belts and similar equipment are extremely efficient at moving materials through a facility and reducing the amount of human effort involved. However, they do create hazards for workers. Some of the most common sources for workplace injuries involve workers being caught in pinch points or nip points. Workers may also be injured if products fall off a conveyor after being loaded incorrectly. Here again, training can minimize the potential for injury. Pinch points should also be guarded to protect against accidental contact. Facilities should have a lockout/tagout program to protect crews that are repairing conveyors and other equipment.
When products are stored incorrectly, they can fall and strike workers. Or, when workers use forklift or other equipment to move products, they may not be properly balanced, causing tip-overs. It’s important to stack products evenly and not to overload shelving or racks. If workers will remove products by hand, be sure to place heavier products on the lower or middle shelves to reduce the potential for back and shoulder injuries. Workers should remove one product at a time, rather than trying to take an entire stack. Finally, aisleways should be kept clear of obstructions.
As with any worksite, warehouses and distribution centers should have a comprehensive safety plan that gives workers clear guidance in the event of a fire, weather event, or other emergency. Exit locations, evacuation procedures, and assembly areas outside the building should be designated. Procedures should be in place to identify how many employees and visitors are present and where they are, so first responders know how to proceed. The sheer size and complexity of modern warehouses makes a quick response challenging, but having a thorough plan improves the likelihood that all workers will remain safe in an emergency situation.