Maximizing the safety of your warehouse requires examining everything from your shelving systems to your loading dock doors. Since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a very keen eye for potential workplace safety problems, it’s common for employers to have minor issues come up during inspections. While OSHA generally doesn’t levy fines as soon as a problem is spotted, any safety hazards detected during inspections will result in a headache and additional paperwork, at a minimum.
It’s best to be proactive and try to maintain the safest warehouse possible – for the sake of employee productivity and morale. However, warehouse managers have a lot to keep track of daily. While it’s easy to farm out safety-related tasks to supervisors and other front-line staff, it’s good to have a higher-level manager take a hard look around the warehouse from time to time.
Walkthroughs, refresher training, better equipment, and other minor tweaks can potentially save you hundreds of thousands of dollars by preventing accidents. Even if you’ve been in the warehouse business for decades, check out our top tips for warehouse safety.
1. Perform Frequent Walkthroughs
Some days are busier than others, and consistently making time to have a supervisor or manager check the whole warehouse can be a challenge. However, this may be the only way to spot wet floors, improperly secured equipment, or other problems before employees begin hurrying about their work. This is especially critical after heavy rain, power outages, or other abnormalities that may have affected equipment and workspaces.
It’s even better to inspect at the beginning of every shift, but depending on the size and complexity of your operation, a full walkthrough may be unnecessary. Instead, check key equipment or areas where accidents have happened in the past. Try to make time to check on new employees, as well, even after their training period has ended. New employees may forget safety policies or may need pointers on appropriate work attire for avoiding accidents.
2. Thoroughly Maintain All Equipment
That forklift seat that’s getting worn could result in a scolding from OSHA during your next inspection. Your shift manager’s cracked helmet won’t protect him from a falling box. And your rookie supervisor’s quick fix on the loading dock door button could be a disaster waiting to happen.
Personal protective equipment can be managed and often repaired on-site, though you’ll want all repairs signed off on by a manager and not merely left to the workers’ discretion. Visual checks of equipment should be done periodically by managers, but also before being used by any staff during their shift.
Heavy equipment, however, should always be inspected and maintained by licensed professionals. While you may have maintenance staff of your own, sometimes you may need to bring over someone from the manufacturer to get a more detailed assessment. Don’t hesitate to do so. Just because your staff can’t find something wrong with the noisy conveyer belt doesn’t mean that it’s safe to use.
3. Inspect Up High
Don’t limit your inspections to what’s going on at eye level! Ceilings rust, shelving units lean, and cables become loose over time. Damaged equipment can be hiding in the places you don’t usually check, and while inspecting high-up areas can be labor-intensive, it’s necessary at least once a year. If there have been past issues with any high-up areas, or if there have been any earthquakes or other major incidents affecting the warehouse, consider doing more frequent inspections. OSHA inspectors don’t overlook these areas, so make sure to be proactive and fix any problems you find.
OSHA regularly uses ANSI MH16.1-2012 guidance on shelving to determine whether or not a shelving unit is unsafe. This document uses particular formulas for how much shelves are allowed to lean and bend before being considered unsafe. Make an effort to inspect upper shelves and shelves that have had pallets stored on them for a long time. Since a leaning shelving unit may not be obvious from the ground, it’s crucial to get a look at the tops of shelves and measure the out of plumb ratio when in doubt.
If your shelving units are in bad shape, consider replacing them entirely to reduce the risk of future problems. While the time and money it takes to install them can seem daunting, it’s a long-term investment that can prevent a catastrophic accident.
4. Get Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems
Getting pallets on and off of shelving is trickier than it looks, even for experienced warehouse staff. It’s common for forklift operators to hit and slightly damage a rack without reporting it to their supervisor. This damage can build up over time, increasing the chances of a major accident. Damage to products can occur as well, causing frustration for clients and a loss in profit for you.
The best way to reduce human error – and accidents that cause problems with OSHA – is to minimize the number of humans in the room. Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS) have come a long way in the past 20 years. These shelving and rack solutions now have more user-friendly software and controls than ever before. Automated pallet retrieval and storage allows you to maximize your storage density, decrease load times, and efficiently monitor the status of each order. As manufacturers have improved ASRS technology, they’ve also made it more affordable, allowing you to maximize your profits.
5. Maintain Safe Staffing Levels
If you’re noticing an increase in worker injuries or accidents that aren’t connected by a common cause, observe your staff more closely to see if they’re struggling under an increased workload. Workers may be cutting corners on safety policies or literally running around the warehouse to get the work done. If overtime work has become common, the resulting fatigue may be causing accidents as well. Since workers don’t want to complain directly to their bosses if they are overworked, you may have to do a little bit of investigating yourself.
While hiring an extra person to each shift may seem like an unnecessary expense, remember that OSHA fines or lawsuits stemming from worker injuries can also be expensive. Plus, a serious injury to one worker can cause a decrease in overall morale, increasing turnover.
Even if you have ASRS technology in your warehouse, increased staffing may be necessary during seasonal increases in work. Depending on what type of warehouse you have, the months leading up to the holidays can be particularly busy. For some warehouses, early spring is the busiest, as various contractors and homeowners prepare to start spring work on their home improvement projects. If necessary, use a temporary staffing agency to fill seasonal needs.
6. Provide Refresher Training
Most companies have a policy of providing rigorous training to new employees. In a fast-paced warehouse environment, there are dozens of potential hazards to keep track of. Dress code, equipment usage rules, procedures for reporting problems, and other policies have to be explained thoroughly and clearly before someone can safely begin working in a warehouse. However, it’s easy for detailed or rarely used procedures to be forgotten over time.
Employees may need re-training and reminders on appropriate hair length, clothing styles, and other potential safety issues as well. These day-to-day personal choices can become easily neglected, especially since supervisors are busy monitoring so many other things.
If you make improvements to your ASRS system or a software update occurs, make sure to thoroughly train employees on the changes as well. The warehouse systems company that installed the changed equipment should be able to walk you through the exact modifications they made.
7. Strictly Delegate Duties
OSHA regulations are clear: employees who have not been trained on heavy equipment should not be using that equipment. While it’s tempting to have managers or office staff fill in for other warehouse staff at various times, this can cause an accident very quickly. Even if you’re not making your clerks drive forklifts, simply having them out on the warehouse floor when they’re not used to procedures can increase the risk of an accident.
When dealing with a staffing shortage due to high turnover or illness, resist the temptation to get untrained staff to do other work. Take a more proactive approach by either training those staff well in advance, or by contracting with a reliable temp agency to get experienced temporary workers when needed. Depending on the size of your operation and your seasonal needs, the latter may be the most sustainable option.
8. Block Off Loading Dock Doors
Some 25% of warehouse accidents occur around loading dock doors. Even experienced workers can have accidents if they’re carrying heavy boxes, or if they’re trying to maneuver a forklift through tight spaces. The scariest accidents occur when a forklift driver backs out of a loading dock door, which can cause him to be pinned beneath the forklift.
Depending on your warehouse’s loading dock setup and the age of the loading dock doors, it may be easiest to just leave the doors open even when there’s no truck there. If the door lift system is old and slow, waiting for the door to open and close each time can waste precious minutes. It’s especially tempting to leave them open in the middle of summer, when an open dock door provides much-needed ventilation.
OSHA standards mandate that a physical fall protection barrier of some kind must be in place wherever there is potential for a fall of more than 48 inches. Many truck loading docks have a height of just under 48 inches, so closing the doors or installing a physical guardrail may not be necessary. However, at a minimum, make sure to have a visual indicator, such as a yellow chain or an expand-a-gate, available so that workers can block off the opening whenever a truck isn’t present.
9. Provide Water Breaks and Fans
Even if your loading dock doors provide some ventilation, warehouse temperatures can be brutal in the summer and can cause you to run afoul of OSHA’s vague heat-related regulations. While day shifts are the hottest, evening and night shifts can still be dangerously hot. This is especially true in areas of the country where high humidity makes it harder for humans’ bodies to cool off by sweating.
Monitoring the temperature inside your warehouse is a good start but remember that humidity can also contribute to an unsafe heat index. Plus, different areas of the warehouse can have different temperatures depending on ventilation levels. Even areas near loading docks can remain muggy on ways when there’s no breeze outside.
Keeping fans running at all times in the summer can help prevent heat-related illnesses and keep employee morale higher. If at all possible, modify the workers’ schedule to allow additional breaks for water in the hottest parts of the summer. An extra ten-minute paid water break in the middle of each shift can be well worth it.
10. Have A Comment Box
Warehouse workers are sometimes reluctant to report problems or concerns. While managers often try to have an open-door policy, employees may still be afraid of retaliation. Young workers may also be concerned about not being taken seriously due to their age. Even a unionized workforce may not always communicate effectively with management, since workers may feel pressure to not “snitch” on each other.
Having an anonymous reporting system for problems can help you prevent accidents before they occur. Whether it’s an unsafe loading dock or a reckless forklift driver, most ongoing problems in warehouses are only fixable if management knows about them. Better yet, make the “comment box” be available online, so that workers don’t have to be worried about being seen writing a report.
11. Get Better Lighting
If your warehouse’s lighting system is getting old, it could be causing hazardous conditions in some areas. High shelving units can cast large shadows, and during overnight shifts, the areas around loading dock doors can become dimly lit as well.
Even if your lighting is in decent condition, it may be time for an eco-friendly overhaul. Lighting can be one of the most expensive parts of a warehouse’s monthly costs. Solar power can be a great way to save money, and you may even be able to sell electricity back to your utility company when you’re not using much of it. This, of course, results in more money you can spend on other safety improvements and will free up electricity for running fans to keep your warehouse temperatures safe.
Plus, improvements to LED lighting in recent years mean that you won’t have to worry about replacing light fixtures as often. Fewer replacements mean fewer staff getting into lifts to make the replacements – and fewer chances for accidents.
There are a number of options available, but you don’t have to sort through all of them on your own. You can start by getting a cost analysis of your current situation and potential upgrades by contacting a member of our team at (800)-589-7225 (RACK).