With the steep increase in online shopping, warehouses are employing more workers. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, over a million Americans work in some capacity in the warehouse and storage industry, up from about 600,000 workers 10 years ago. Keeping those employees safe on the job is particularly important in this day and age.
The dangers of warehouse work
Even under safe conditions, working in a warehouse can still be hazardous. It can be a physically demanding job in an environment with variable temperatures, noise levels, and lighting. Moving materials via equipment or manually can cause injuries to hands, fingers, feet, and toes. Workers can slip, trip, fall, or heavy objects can even fall on them. Other dangers include box cutters, nails and splinters on wooden pallets, and back injuries caused by improper lifting. Pallet jacks and forklifts carry their own dangers.
Because of all of the potential hazards, several Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards apply to warehouse operations. In 2019, the most-often seen OSHA violations in warehouses and storage facilities were:
- Emergency exit hazards
- Goods and material storage hazards
- Slip and fall hazards
- Inadequate sanitation and respiratory protection
- Improper ladder use
Setting safety standards
Setting safety standards that guide the work performed at your worksite is a key way to improve working conditions. The first step is to develop a safety program for each worksite. The following checklists outlined by OSHA can is a great place to start.
- Exposed or open loading dock doors and other areas that employees could fall four feet or more or walk off should be chained off, roped off, or otherwise blocked.
- Floors and aisles are clear of clutter, electrical cords, hoses, spills, and other hazards that could cause employees to slip, trip, or fall.
- Proper work practices are factored into determining the time requirements for an employee to perform a task.
- Employees performing physical work have adequate periodic rest breaks to avoid fatigue that could result in a greater risk of accidents and reduced quality of work.
- Newly hired employees receive general ergonomics training and task-specific training.
- The warehouse is well ventilated.
- Employees are instructed on how to avoid heat stress in hot, humid environments.
- Employees are instructed on how to work in cold environments.
- The facility has lockout/tag-out procedures.
Materials handling safety
- There are appropriately marked and sufficiently safe clearances for aisles and at loading docks or passageways where mechanical handling equipment is used.
- Loose or unboxed materials that might fall from a pile are properly stacked by blocking, interlocking, or limiting the height of the pile to prevent falling hazards.
- Bags, containers, bundles, etc., are stored in tiers that are stacked, blocked, interlocked, and limited in height so that they are stable and secure to prevent sliding or collapse.
- Storage areas are kept free from accumulation of materials that could lead to tripping, fire, explosion, or pest infestations.
- Excessive vegetation is removed from building entrances and work or traffic areas to prevent possible trip or fall hazards due to visual obstructions.
- Derail and/or bumper blocks are provided on spur railroad tracks where a rolling car could contact other cars and at entrances to buildings and work or traffic areas.
- Covers and/or guardrails are provided to protect workers from the hazards of stair openings in floors, meter or equipment pits, and similar hazards.
- Workers use proper lifting techniques.
- Elevators and hoists for lifting materials/containers are properly used with adequate safe clearances, no obstructions, appropriate signals, and directional warning signs.
- Forklifts meet the design and construction requirements established in American National Standard for Powered Industrial Trucks, Part II ANSI B56.1-1969.
- Written approval from the truck manufacturer has been obtained for any modifications or additions that affect the capacity and safe operation of the vehicle.
- Capacity, operation, and maintenance instruction plates, tags, or decals are changed to specify any modifications or additions to the vehicle.
- Nameplates and markings are in place and maintained in a legible condition.
- Forklifts that are used in hazardous locations are appropriately marked/approved for such use.
- Battery charging is conducted only in designated areas.
- Appropriate facilities are provided for flushing and neutralizing spilled electrolytes, for fire extinguishing, for protecting charging apparatus from damage by trucks, and for adequate ventilation to disperse fumes from gassing batteries.
- Conveyors, overhead hoists, or equivalent materials handling equipment are provided for handling batteries.
- Reinstalled batteries are properly positioned and secured.
- Carboy tilters or siphons are used for handling electrolytes.
- Forklifts are properly positioned and brakes applied before workers start to change or charge batteries.
- Vent caps are properly functioning.
- Precautions are taken to prevent smoking, open flames, sparks, or electric arcs in battery charging areas and during storage/changing of propane fuel tanks.
- Tools and other metallic objects are kept away from the top of uncovered
- Concentrations of noxious gases and fumes are kept below acceptable levels.
- Forklift operators are competent to operate a vehicle safely as demonstrated by successful completion of training and evaluation conducted and certified by persons with the knowledge, training, and experience to train operators and evaluate their performance.
- The training program content includes all truck-related topics, workplace-related topics, and the requirements of 29 CFR 1910.178 for safe truck operation.
- Refresher training and evaluation is conducted whenever an operator has been observed operating the vehicle in an unsafe manner or has been involved in an accident or a near-miss incident.
- Refresher training and evaluation is conducted whenever an operator is assigned to drive a different type of truck or whenever a condition in the workplace changes in a manner that could affect the safe operation of the truck.
- Evaluations of each operator’s performance are conducted at least once every three years.
Hazard communication safety
- All hazardous materials containers are properly labeled, indicating the chemical’s identity, the manufacturer’s name and address, and appropriate hazard warnings.
- There is an updated list of hazardous chemicals.
- The facility has a written program that covers hazard determination, including Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs), labeling, and training.
- There is a system to check that each incoming chemical is accompanied by an MSDS.
- All employees are trained in the requirements of the hazard communication standard, the chemical hazards to which they are exposed, how to read and understand an MSDS and chemical labels, and on what precautions to take to prevent exposure.
- All employee training is documented.
- All outside contractors are given a complete list of chemical products, hazards, and precautions.
- Procedures have been established to maintain and evaluate the effectiveness of the current program.
- Employees use proper personal protective equipment (PPE) when handling chemicals.
- All chemicals are stored according to the manufacturer’s recommendations and local or national fire codes.
OSHA also requires that each warehouse post mandatory safety signage. Safety signs in warehouses fall into several different categories, including notice, general safety, admittance, fire safety, and non-hazard. Within these main categories, there are three levels of alerts:
- Danger signs signal the most serious hazards
- Warning signs highlight areas that could be hazardous but not at the level of danger areas
- Caution signs point out areas that could cause minor injuries or damage
A note on COVID-19
Of course, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic has additionally impacted warehouse safety practices across the nation. Learn more about keeping warehouse employees safe in our COVID-19 guide to top safety resources for small businesses.
Thanks for reading! Please note that this content is intended for educational purposes only. As best practices change regularly, you should refer to your trusted advisor for specific counsel. If you’re a small business owner, learn more about workplace safety or check your workers’ comp rate in 3 minutes.