Deciding which warehouse racking system works for a business is all about space and anticipated volume. Warehouse ergonomics means having a functional, streamlined warehouse floor. Ergonomics are critical in terms of mitigating safety risks, optimizing speed, and lowering cost. When considering warehouse ergonomics, there are many issues to consider. As with any workplace, especially a warehouse, safety is of the utmost concern. With thousands upon thousands of pounds consistently looming over the heads of employees, attention to safety should be the priority. Below is a list of safety tips to consider when improving upon warehouse workflow, or when starting a warehouse from scratch. Warehouse racking is only one small part of warehouse ergonomics – understanding workflow, OSHA guidelines, material handling are just a few of the other safety issues to consider.
#1 Placing and Picking Tasks
- Placing tasks in a warehouse may sound simple enough: A lift, automated cart or person places pallets into a designated slot or aisle within a racking system. However, it is probably one of the most difficult tasks in a warehouse from a safety perspective.
- In a busy warehouse, lifts and people are constantly in aisles performing various tasks. Despite the organization in place, no one can account for human error such as walking into the wrong zone or running into an upright while distracted. This is where safety is a huge issue during placing tasks.
- Proper signage is important in order to let others know where they can and cannot walk within the warehouse. Guard rails around vulnerable points in the pallet racking system help protect product, people, and the system itself. Finally, employee understanding of OSHA procedures and warehouse placing organization can help eliminate most of the risk when placing product.
- Picking tasks refer to people, lifts, or automatic carts picking product from shelving. A warehouse that has lifts and employees placing and picking simultaneously must have routes planned precisely to avoid collision and injury.
- Areas, where pickers are most likely to get injured, are in staging areas, where product has been placed for ease of picking. These are high traffic areas where movement is constant. Lift operators and other persons involved in placing tasks must have a clear understanding of the procedures regarding placing product within a staging area or just simply moving around it. As well, the area should be properly signed.
- Pickers who have distinct zones or aisles in a warehouse should always be on the lookout for damaged beams, uprights or pallets. Every warehouse should have damage reporting procedures, and all employees should be trained in these and be constantly vigilant.
- Finally, pickers must take care of their own safety. Lift operators must have proof of proper training on their designated lift. Manual pickers should be trained in the proper way to lift cartons or other heavy objects, as well as the appropriate methods to transport them across the warehouse.
- When designing a workflow for a warehouse, keeping pickers away from the people or machines doing the placing is an excellent choice in order to minimize injury and maximize efficiency. However, some warehouse racking systems don’t allow for that. Therefore, proper signage, training in workflow procedures for all employees, and safety device installation are mandatory for a safe warehouse.
#2 Packing Ergonomics
There are many facets to the packing process in a warehouse, but most center around the packing of the product itself. There are two parts to the actual “package” – internal and external. The internal packing is what the customer will see, and the external packing is for warehouse or industrial use. External packaging must be strong enough to withstand a fall or being handled by an automated cart, lift, or person. A broken package can result in injury or broken equipment. Another facet to packing ergonomics is the actual weight and dimensions of the packaging itself. Warehouses that wrap their pallets must take care not to overload the pallet beyond its capacity. Beyond the packaging, having multiple packing stations or zones can often lead to increased productivity and lessen the risk of collision or injury. If there is a product that is hazardous, fragile or perishable, there should be a separate packing zone just for that specific product. Cross-contamination, damaged product, or other accidents from those products should be contained. Finally, designating one, or a group of, employees in each packing area to be in charge of tidying after, before, and during each shift, ensure accountability amongst staff and mitigates dangerous conditions. Keeping an uncluttered packing area reduces the likelihood of employee injury and also increases staff buy-in and overall efficiency.
#3 Congestion in the Aisles
Clearly, congested aisles are not recommended in any workplace, warehouse or otherwise. The risk to employees is clear, as well as the potential impact on efficiency and, thus, profitability. Regardless of the type of warehouse racking systems in a workplace, aisle congestion must be avoided at all costs. For cramped warehouses using a push back or drive in racking system, congestion is even more critical as there are fewer aisles. There are several steps an employer can take to ensure aisles are clean and tidy:
- Have each employee responsible for the tidiness of their zone. If more than one employee is in a zone, a rotating schedule can work. Have designated times each day or week for employees to stop and clean.
- Sequencing orders as much as possible allows pickers to avoid one another, eliminating potential accidents. If orders are sequenced, then each picker can be spaced out, and linear movements are emphasized.
- Consider putting the most popular SKUs away from each other, to avoid congestion incidents or space out orders between shifts. High volume product can lead to multiple lifts being in the same area for a prolonged period, which is not ideal.
- Automating may be a solution for some businesses, although it is costly. Automated picking alleviates the need for manual picking and human labor. The less foot traffic in the aisles, the safer and tidier they become.
- Finally, a warehouse management system (WMS) can help a business plan picking and packing procedures more accurately and reduce the likelihood of aisle congestion.
Aisle congestion is often a symptom of larger issues in a warehouse. Whether new racking is needed, or an overhaul of the entire warehouse design, it is only a matter of time before an accident occurs. Any warehouse should make decongesting aisles a top priority.
#4 Keeping Receiving and Shipping Safe
Receiving and shipping areas are often one of the busiest areas in a warehouse, and therefore the most accident-prone. Lifts flying into and out of trailers loaded with heavy pallets can be a hazard. Warehouses should ensure every employee knows proper shipping and receiving protocol and is familiar with the following safety hazards in that zone:
- Receiving bays should be cleared of all personnel when a trailer is docking. Accidents involving employees being pinned between a trailer and dock can lead to serious injury or death.
- Dock plates are extremely heavy and can do serious harm to employees. Procedures should be in place to ensure that a designated worker is responsible for docking trailers while all others remain clear until the trailer is safe to enter.
- Trailers have often come from long distances and over varied terrain. Workers cannot assume all packaging and pallets in a trailer are still safely secured. Falling items can occur, and visual inspection should be made before unloading material to ensure all packaging and pallets are safe.
The movement of lifts into and out of trailers, loaded with material, is extremely dangerous. Often there is racking on either side of the bay and space is limited. Foot traffic in these areas during loading/unloading should be minimized. Clear procedures should outline who unloads what bay, and when. Finally, proper signage is always a must when it comes to safety, particularly in receiving areas. As these areas are frequented by truck drivers and other personnel unfamiliar with particular warehouses, it is crucial that signs make clear where it is safe and not safe to be. #5 Monitoring Workflow for Safety Workflow is all movement within the warehouse, particularly how people and machines move while accomplishing tasks. Having a methodical, planned workflow can eliminate most safety problems that can occur in a warehouse. Keeping workers from colliding and floors free from clutter is part of a workflow plan. Monitoring workflow on a day-to-day basis can be drastically improved through the usage of facility management software. This software help improve return on investment and can ensure the safety of workers in many areas, such as:
- Monitoring the movement of people and machines and raising alerts if there is a potential problem or collision.
- Establishing routine maintenance procedures for every part of the warehouse.
- Software not only can monitor and help mitigate safety issues amongst workers but can also offer controlled access type functions to a warehouse. Monitoring who comes in and out of the building is useful if handling valuable or sensitive material.
Workflow software will not solve every safety issue in the warehouse, but it can bring many different facets of the warehouse onto one screen. Being able to monitor the flow of lifts through the aisles while watching for alerts for potential collisions or unknown persons is valuable to a safely operating warehouse.
#6 Equipment for Safety Ergonomics
There are many options for equipment that will improve safety in a warehouse. While all provide some level of safety, below are the most critical pieces of equipment:
- Adjustable work benches allow workers to adjust the height or angle of a workstation to suit their needs. Workers bent over at a packing station could alter the angle of their bench to allow them to stand in a more upright position. Other workers could lower their bench, allowing them to sit and scan packages. These reduce stress and fatigue, improve morale and productivity.
- Anti-fatigue mats help workers who must stand all day in one spot or a few spots. These reduce stress to the back due to the cushioned surface, instead of standing on a concrete floor.
- Hydraulic worktables are a specific kind of adjustable workbench. They are typically heavy-duty steel tables that can support significant loads. They can raise and lower via a hydraulic set of legs and are ideal for workers packing heavier materials. They can lower the table to put heavier items on, and then raise it to pack those materials.
- Gravity flow storage racks use rubberized rollers or small steel wheels to transport a box or pallet on a slight decline down the length of a rack. These industrial shelving units are ideal as workers do not have to reach to pull cartons forward – gravity pushes them.
- Platform systems are important for warehouses that require pickers to reach or climb ladders to reach the product manually. Platform systems allow workers to step up on safe platforms to reach the product, or mechanically lift themselves up depending on the type of system in place.
#7 Following OSHA Guidelines and Documentation OSHA has in place a number of guidelines regarding the safe operation of a warehouse. Below are some of the most important in terms of keeping workers safe:
- Be sure all lift operators are trained and have the paperwork to prove their training.
- Ensure all electrical wiring is up to code, and that all boxes and junction boxes are labeled clearly throughout the warehouse.
- Adequate lighting throughout the warehouse is a must.
- Fall arrest systems should be in place as slippery surfaces account for large numbers of workplace injury.
- Other safety equipment such as guardrails should be in place to protect warehouse racking from lift collisions.
- Proper training should be given to all employees regarding respiratory protective equipment and hazardous material handling and labeling.
- Workers should know where all fire equipment is, how to use it, and where exits are located.
- All holes and openings in floors should either be covered or labeled or both.
These safety tips are only a few of the many safety procedures and guidelines that should be followed in any warehouse environment. However, workers who are properly trained and who work in a warehouse with a clear warehouse management system are much less likely to sustain a serious injury on the job.