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Modern Warehouse Safety Problems

Dec. 5, 2019
We’re entering a new era of health and safety risk for warehouse workers.

The retail warehouse business is undergoing massive change. Amazon alone manages over 150 million sq. ft. of warehouse space around the world and sells over 4000 products per minute. Many brick and mortar brands are shifting to digital—and with that, transforming warehouses from stock rooms to e-commerce support stations.

That’s not all: there is also a logistics technology race that, rather than immediately replace worker jobs, will likely make them more repetitive, physically stressful, and fast-paced.

Warehouse fatalities jumped from 11 to 22 annually in a span of just two years (2015-2017), according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. The most recently released injury rate is 5.1 per 100 full-time warehouse workers, which is the same injury rate as farming.

Hazards from employee interactions with motorized equipment like autonomous forklifts and robots are increasing as automation replaces manual labor wherever efficiency gains are possible. Therefore, warehouse workers everywhere will be at a higher risk for injury in 2020 as companies struggle to implement safety protocols that match the pace of modernization.

A few areas of safety management will be particularly impacted as companies seek to stay afloat in the e-commerce space.

Budgeting for Safety

As the pace of warehouse work increases, it will be tempting for companies to hire staff that can play the dual role of safety and production manager. This becomes a problem when efficiency and productivity KPIs are weighted higher than safety KPIs.

To meet pressing goals, managers may downplay the need to immediately and thoroughly address hazards and near misses. The time saved by neglecting investigation and mitigation of “minor” safety issues will never exceed time and money lost to an injured worker.

Companies should develop processes and set goals that support positive safety outcomes. This way, managers don’t feel the need to neglect safety duties to meet quotas. They should also implement a digital safety management platform that saves time by integrating images, users, and root cause identification into the reporting feature.

It need only take minutes to thoroughly document hazards and create tasks to remove them. Organizations should utilize digital safety management systems that leverage machine learning to identify hazards and allow your staff to quickly respond to them.

Exit and Storage Hazards

If you’re constantly offloading and repackaging large shipments while cutting backroom staff to save costs, your aisles and exits and walkways may be non-compliant. Boxes and clutter distributed throughout aisles and in front of doorways—even for just a few hours—is not acceptable by OSHA standards, which stipulate that all exits must be free of clutter and unobstructed.

If you’re about to roll out logistics changes in your warehouses, start with one or two branches and test your processes for at least a month in busy seasons—or longer in the offseason—to ensure you’re new inventory flow allows clear points of entry and exit at all times.

Ergonomics

Fast-paced packing, labeling, sorting, twisting, and standing: continuous and repetitive motion is a well-known cause of physical distress. Environmental stressors, such as high heat and noise levels or extremely cold interior temperatures add to physical stress. Facilities, work processes and floor setup must be designed to reduce ergonomic stress first. Under the OSHA General Duty Clause and the revised program standard, employers must seek to reduce injuries from the ground up. Worker training is also vitally important.

Worker Training

Round-the-clock, fast-paced shifts can’t be an excuse for neglecting worker training. Hold safety meetings on common sources of warehouse injury leading to time off work and make sure meetings are conducted in all the languages spoken by your workforce. Topics should include:

  • Forklifts and pallet jacks
  • Hazard communication
  • Electrical, wiring methods and system design
  • Exit and Aisle Hazards
  • Mechanical power transmission
  • LOTO
  • Respiratory protection
  • Ergonomics

It costs $7,000 to replace each lost warehouse worker with a $28,000 salary, according to Salary.com. The cost of training and re-training is, of course, negligible compared to the above sum—particularly where the worker is lost due to injury.

Setting the Pace

Warehouse safety programs should set the pace of process changes. If not, companies risk losing time and talent in the short and long run. While process and production personnel may know the letter of safety law, safety staff and floor managers can advise you with the knowledge that only firsthand experience can provide.

Evaluate the safety of your warehouses during both high and low traffic times. Use OSHA guidelines to determine which safety risks are needless—or unlawful—in your warehouses. Address hazards immediately and give your staff space for safety actions.

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