Pedestrians are some of the most vulnerable employees in a warehouse setting simply because (as we’ve stated in some of our recent articles) in a physical battle between man vs. machine, the machine is going to win…especially when that machine is a rolling piece of equipment weighing thousands of pounds. Hoping pedestrians and operators are smart enough to avoid a tragic incident is not an acceptable – or very effective – safety precaution. What, then, can be done to help ensure the safety of pedestrians?
One of the most important things you can do as a warehouse manager or safety manager is to control exactly where pedestrians are walking while in your warehouse. Making pedestrian travel paths predictable helps to ensure that operators know where to expect people. It’s not that operators should not be alert for pedestrians at all times, but walkways help the operators to know where the high foot-traffic areas are.
However, simply saying, “Stay close to the wall,” or “Don’t cross over there,” is not enough. The first thing you’ll want to do is designate the walkway. Very infrequently will you be able to put a physical barricade up along the entire walkway, but at the very least you can paint it so there is no mistaking where it is. That being said, if you have the luxury of physically separating your people from your machines using rails or bollards, by all means do it. Even if it’s just in certain places. Systems like this Kwik Kit make it easy for you to erect an OSHA-compliant barrier in varying lengths or configurations. There is no substitute for a physical barrier.
Once you’ve painted your walkway and/or added rails or bollards, your personnel need to be trained. Having walkways does you absolutely no good if people aren’t going to stay within the boundaries. The walkways also do you no good if operators are going to barrel through them at high speeds. Set time aside to explain to your employees the purpose of the walkways, the hazards they face if they were to travel outside of them, and what the disciplinary action will be if they violate your rules (whether as a pedestrian or as an operator). No safety procedure is going to be successful if there are no consequences for those that don’t follow it. And, it is important that if you are going to have disciplinary actions, that you follow through with them. Anybody who is a parent is probably painfully aware of what happens when a violator realizes they are facing nothing but empty threats.
It is important to note that you will not be able to have walkways everywhere pedestrians need to walk, otherwise your entire floor would be painted, which would be as pointless as not painting them at all. When you train your employees, you need to train them on what they need to do and/or where they need to go once they have to step out of a walkway. Just like teaching a child to look both ways before crossing a street, ensure they understand that forklifts have the right of way because they simply may not be able to stop in time for them (at the very least not without losing a load). Also, pedestrians need to always ensure the forklift operator is completely aware of their presence before continuing by making eye contact with the operator. Teach your employees not to place themselves immediately behind any machine or between any machine and a fixed object like a wall. You never know when an operator is going to lose control, hit the gas instead of the brake, or back up when they mean to go forward.
Even though it is more difficult, none of this means that you still can’t control access to undesignated or more dangerous areas. For instance, where your walkway crosses a highly traveled forklift path, you may choose to install safety gates. These gates force the pedestrian to pause and ensure it is safe to proceed before automatically closing to prevent anybody else from wandering through. In this day and age of walking and texting, physically preventing people from wandering into traffic has become a sad necessity.
Finally, make sure you know who is wandering through your warehouse. There is no better way to keep a handle on the safety of everyone in your facility than by knowing who is in there at all times, that they are supposed to be there, they have been trained, and that they adhere to your policies. Sending a random truck driver, for instance, to go to a bathroom in the middle of your warehouse can not only put your product at risk, but can put them at risk of physical harm as well. This is your facility. Ensure that anybody who sets foot in it goes home safely when they leave.
In a recent article, we discussed the overall hazards forklift use in a warehouse poses and what you need to do to have a successful safety program in such a situation. However, let’s drill down a little further to see not only how we can protect our workers from forklift hazards, but also how to protect them from other hazards that exist in warehouse environments.
One of the most prolific hazards in warehouse environments would be impact hazards, or what OSHA calls “Struck-By Hazards” (though, there is a fine line between struck-by and caught between – for instance, being hit by a forklift would be struck-by, while being pinned between a forklift and a wall would be a caught-between). We know that powered vehicles pose a great risk, but so does product that’s being moved around and stacked up. Poorly wrapped pallets, product stacked too high, and awkward shaped/weighted material increases the chance of having an incident. Aside from training your operators to stack material properly and drive safely, the most effective means of protection is to physically keep people away from areas that could be hazardous.
Various products exist that help to keep your machines and your people from any unwanted meetings with each other. Bollards, for instance, are great for protecting an area from forklift entry while still allowing easy pedestrian access. A battery charging station would be a great example of where you might want to use these. You can set them close enough to the chargers to allow you to get the forklift where it needs to be, but still eliminate a collision with the equipment. Meanwhile, your personnel can still get to the chargers without having to climb over anything or go around any significant distance.
For areas where you don’t necessarily need pedestrian access, there are other impact barriers available that resemble more of a sturdy fencing system. These are great for use along pedestrian walkways where you don’t want a break in the protection.
Sometimes, a change in operation leads to the need to protect an area you weren’t considering when designing your warehouse layout. Luckily, products like this “Kwik Kit” are available. Quick and easy to set up, these types of systems can be configured to whatever you need. Whether a temporary work area to accommodate seasonal business or a new process that will be around for a while, one of these kits can be quickly assembled for fast, easy protection.
Fall protection isn’t something that necessarily comes to mind when you’re first discussing warehouse safety hazards, but just like anywhere else, fall hazards exist. Keep in mind, since warehousing and maintenance work fall under OSHA’s General Industry standards, all it takes is an exposure to a 4’ drop to require fall protection. Warehouses that have mezzanines are especially susceptible to this. Sure, a simple railing protects the edge, but what do you do when you need to get material up to that level?
Unless you have the capability to drop pallets in over a railing, you are going to need to have a gate. And, what happens when that gate opens? Fall hazard. Unfortunately, this fall hazard is often overlooked or ignored. Standing behind a railing waiting for a load does nothing when there’s a break in the railing inches away. One option is to ensure that all of your personnel on the mezzanine are tied-off whenever the gate is open, but this allows for human error. A better option is to consider installing gates that don’t allow for exposure. This method eliminates your personnel “forgetting” to tie-off, choosing a bad anchor point, or not properly inspecting their equipment.
Besides the storage of material that could be flammable, the very existence of powered equipment brings in a potential fire hazard (not to mention an atmospheric hazard if you’re using gas, diesel, or propane fueled machines). It is important to ensure that your sprinkler systems are tested as required, that you are not stacking material too close to the sprinklers, that you are not stacking empty pallets too high (in many cases, a stack of empty pallets more than 6’ high could burn too hot for a sprinkler system to put out), and that you have enough fire extinguishers throughout your facility that are properly inspected and maintained.
While, for the most part, warehouse hazards tend to be similar in nature, where and how they happen can be as varied as the different types of product you store. Evaluating your situation is critical before you begin operations, but if you haven’t done a thorough evaluation yet, now is the time to do it. Remember, a good pedestrian in a warehouse walks cautiously, ensures operators know where they are at all times, sticks to designated walkways, and pays attention to mirrors mounted at blind corners. The only problem is that not all pedestrians are good pedestrians. Don’t leave safety to chance. Evaluate, plan, implement, and review so that you can ensure the well-being of not only your employees, but everybody that sets foot in your facility.
Sometimes you may have the luxury of working for a company that says, “Safety? Whatever you need, you get.” However, that is certainly not always the case. More often than not, you will need to work within a budget to meet your safety needs. While it’s nice to say that safety is of the utmost importance, therefore cost should never matter, the reality is that a company is in business to make money and if they’re not doing that, they won’t be around for very long.
When faced with the idea of meeting a budget, it’s important that you plan well to avoid being out of funds when something critical arises. Sure, you could try to “wing it”, and as long as you hit no major hiccups you could be fine, but if you misstep, the results could be disastrous.
As you have probably guessed, I’m not the biggest fan of the “wing it” methodology. My suggestion? Plan ahead. There are a number of things you will easily know a year out. For example, which training courses are you required to provide to your employees annually? What medical surveillance needs to occur each year? What PPE do you need to keep in stock? What subscriptions and dues are you required to maintain?
Answering these questions could give you a good foundation for what you intend to spend over the upcoming year. Keep in mind, though, that you’ll need to figure in turnover or expansion. If you account for training based on the current size of your company, but your company intends to increase the workforce by 25% over the course of the year, you are going to fall short. In the same scenario, if you based your PPE needs on the averages of the prior few years when your workforce was smaller, your numbers aren’t going to work. It’s important to know the company’s plans and how they will affect yours.
All that being said, you can never account for every possibility, but you can use all of the information available to you to come up with a sound estimate.
There are a number of ways to satisfy your training requirements for the year, the most cost-effective of which would be for you to handle training internally. First, though, you need to ask yourself if this is feasible. Are you, or is somebody in your company, qualified to teach your employees what is necessary? Perhaps you can teach Hazard Communication just fine, but need to bring somebody in to do your Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response courses. If so, you’ll need to account for the 3rd-party trainer in your budget. Is your budget tight? Maybe you want to look at some online training (Side Note: I personally believe that online training cannot compare to real-world training and the interaction that occurs with a qualified, experienced instructor, but online training certainly can serve a purpose when you have financial restrictions).
If money is a concern, it doesn’t hurt to weigh the cost of taking a train-the-trainer cost (for instance, for such things as First Aid/CPR/AED or the OSHA Outreach 10 and 30 Hour courses) versus bringing somebody in. When making this decision, though, you also need to factor in the value of your time. How much training will you be doing? How invasive will it be into the rest of what you are trying to accomplish? Is it better to be in the field and office concerning yourself with other issues while your employees cycle through classes with a third party trainer? In other words, if you are tied up in training, does that prevent other important things from getting done?
There are definitely tricks to stretching your budget when it comes to purchasing PPE and other equipment. In my opinion, skimping on quality isn’t one of them. Look, a $30 full-body harness that meets ANSI requirements is going to, by definition, perform exactly the same as a $250 full-body harness that meets ANSI requirements, but there’s a reason for the price difference. Whether it’s comfort, additional functionality, or some other reason, you’re sacrificing something to pay the lower price. And, if it’s comfort, you’ve just made enforcement 1000x harder. That’s not to say you need to spend $250 per harness, but make sure you know what you’re getting before you purchase. Also, the key above is that they both meet ANSI standards. Don’t be fooled by junk that makes its way to market. Look for the ANSI standard numbers listed on the label or stamped into the equipment.
If you have the opportunity to buy in bulk, do it. You will receive discounts. However, even if you can’t buy in bulk, getting a representative with a supplier will often result in getting prices you can’t get off the website or in a store.
Wants vs. Needs
At some point, you have to determine what you want versus what you need and they definitely aren’t always the same. Again, we’d all like to think that safety budgets should be unlimited but we need to work within the resources available to us. Perhaps you’ve always splurged on fancy brand-name safety glasses that run you $10-$15/pair. Well, it could be time to drop that down a notch, especially since you can probably find similar ones for less than $5/pair. Do you turn every safety meeting into a two-day affair with breakfast and lunch? Perhaps you need to look at if that is necessary. Sure, we all want to keep our employees happy, but if you’re pressed for money, then maybe requiring students to bring lunch isn’t the end of the world or perhaps there’s just a less expensive way to feed them, rather than eliminating food altogether.
There are many tools out there now that can help make you much more efficient in your work. While you may look at some of them as an extra expense, what does it save you in your time or in money that bleeds out unnoticed because it’s in drips and drabs? One example is an online SDS service. Sure, you have to pay for a subscription, but how much time are you spending trying to make sure that you always have the most up-to-date SDS? Most online services push new versions out to you as they become available. And, if you’re not spending much time doing it, is your SDS book compliant? Is it current? Tools like this can make you more efficient, saving your company money.
Training tracking software is another tool that may have some up-front costs but can save you a ton of time down the road. If you’re using simple spreadsheets, not only do you have to spend time maintaining them, but you need to manually search to see who needs training refreshers and doing that way makes it easy to miss things. Make sure you know what tools and technology are available to you so that your time and energy isn’t spent in the wrong places.
Budgets aren’t easy, and they certainly aren’t as much fun as being able to spend what you want when you want, but there’s no denying they’re a necessary evil. Don’t go into them blind. Research, prioritize, and plan ahead. You don’t always need more dollars, you just need to be able to get more out of the ones you already have.