Hidden Hazards in Your Warehouse
I’ve been in many warehouses. Many, many warehouses. The difference in safety culture from one to the next is as varied as the products they store. Some are in pristine, new buildings with clear lines painted on the floor, have only safe, certified forklift operators driving the machines, and have meticulously stacked products on their shelves.
Others…well, not so much.
Then there are those that fall in-between. These are the ones that have some sort of safety program that kind of addresses their hazards. In these situations, the obvious problems are the ones that are most likely addressed: operator training, safely stacking product, wheel-chocking of trucks, and things like that. However, things that take a little more depth of knowledge might be missed. What are some hidden hazards that might be looming over one of these warehouses, waiting to strike?
Because the vast majority of work in a warehouse takes place at ground level, fall protection sometimes fails to be a consideration, yet there is a potential for falls in many situations. In many warehouses, forklifts place the product up high and retrieve it, but in some, pallets and cases need to be broken to fill orders. Some of these are at heights and it is simpler to use a lift to put a person up there than it is to bring the pallet down, select what you need, and return the product to its original place. In this situation, fall protection would be needed. The employee being raised would not only need to be on something designed to lift a person (in other words, no standing on a pile of coffee bean sacks on a pallet on the forks of a forklift – I’m not saying this did actually happen…), but may also be required to be tied off, depending on the type of lift being used.
But your fall protection concerns don’t end there. Do you have mezzanines? Elevated walkways? I’m sure you’ve already addressed the need for rails – but if you haven’t, now is the time. The part that is more likely to get missed, though, is your loading area. If you have a break in the rails with no way to close it up when a loaded forklift is not present, then you have a violation. Mezzanine and pallet gates solve this problem. Self-closing gates ensure that nobody leaves the gate open, exposing your employees to a fall you thought you’d protected against.
The same issue may exist at the top of fixed ladders. Do you have any locations where there is a break in the railing to access the ladder? Depending on the layout, you may want to – or need to – consider a self-closing safety gate as well.
Struck By Hazards
Hopefully, your forklift operators have been properly trained, so that they know the best practices to help avoid collisions with other forklifts or pedestrians. Staying to the center of aisles, stopping at intersections, using provided mirrors, keeping a safe distance from other forklifts, travelling the proper speed, and ensuring any spills are immediately cleaned up definitely help prevent injury from direct collision, but there is always room for human error. Certain safeguards can help further reduce the chance for human error, as well as injury from indirect contact (for example, a forklift bumps into a rack knocking product off onto a pedestrian).
Strategically placed bollards can help protect product, utilities, and personnel from your forklift traffic. This forces your equipment to give a greater safety cushion when travelling. You can use impact barriers or safety rails to line sections of your pedestrian walkways as well, eliminating any chance that somebody passing through your warehouse wanders into traffic or on the opposite side of a rack that is being loaded.
Just because you don’t store product known to be hazardous materials, doesn’t mean you don’t have hazardous materials. Even small amounts of flammable liquids need to be properly stored so they don’t present a hazard. Your maintenance team could have materials that fall into this category. Ensure that you have the proper flammable liquid storage cabinets as is required by OSHA for any products you are storing. And, if you haven’t been diligent about the type of materials being stored in your warehouse, now’s the time to check. Even materials just passing through need to be properly stored in a separate barricaded part of the warehouse to prevent accidental contact. Signage needs to be posted as required to inform employees of the fact that this is indeed hazardous material and to prevent smoking near flammables. Employees handling this material need to be properly trained and SDSs need to be available. Finally, depending on the type and amount of material, can you legally store such material in your building and is your fire suppression system sufficient to fight a fire involving what you have on site?
There are many regulations that apply to the handling, transfer and storage of hazardous materials. Warehouses that deal specifically with this are usually well-equipped. It’s those that only handle some here and there that often find themselves lacking the resources to properly handle compliance. If you have hazardous materials, seek out the advice of somebody familiar with the regulations to ensure you are not opening yourself up to fines and your employees up to illness and injury.
In the end, full hazard assessments are the key to ensuring that you are properly prepared for any situation. If you do not have somebody capable of doing this thoroughly, seek out the expertise of somebody who does. Abating some hazards is never a satisfactory solution. Don’t wait until you are experiencing employee injuries or a warehouse fire to perform the due diligence you should already be performing.