25% of all workplace injury claims are due to slips and falls. Each year, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 95 million lost work days due to these claims. Prioritizing safety isn’t just nice for your employees. It’s critical to operating a lean supply chain that isn’t bogged down by hidden expenses.
Warehouses are essential to manufacturers, distributors, importers, exporters, and more. They also boast a lot of powerful equipment, increasing the risk of workplace hazards.
Failing to implement and regulate safety procedures can lead to high employee turnover, injuries, legal issues, and even fatalities.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), fatal injuries in the warehouse industry exceeds the national average across all industries. In addition to deaths and life-changing illness or injury, poor safety procedures can lead to:
- Reduced productivity
- Reduced employee satisfaction
- Increased absenteeism
- Frequent equipment down time
While some employers may cut corners to save a buck in the short term, an unsafe warehouse is not worth the long term human and financial costs.
We know you want to do right by your employees, and this includes ensuring occupational safety. Nevertheless, it’s almost impossible to prevent all safety hazards. A warehouse owner may expect their manager to know the drill and simply leave safety procedures to them. What you’d be failing to recognize is your own critical role in establishing a safe warehouse culture.
While this article provides information on running a safe warehouse, it’s important to remember that occupational safety is an ongoing activity.
Staying up to date and maintaining a “safety first” culture is a continuous activity. With that in mind, we’ll provide answers to commonly asked questions like:
- What can I do to keep my employees safe?
- What are my obligations as an employer to avoid legal action or citations?
- What is the correct process to follow if an employee is injured or dies?
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What Can I Do to Keep My Warehouse Employees Safe?
There are several risks to navigate in a warehouse from moving parts to stray cords to roaming forklifts. In order to keep your employees safe, be mindful of the following potential safety hazards and implement best practices to maintain a safe warehouse.
For a more comprehensive list of risks and safety measures, visit the OSHA’s Pocket Guide on Warehousing.
According to the American Supply Association, 25% of all industrial accidents happen at the loading dock. Forklifts and loads can easily fall off docks and injure or kill workers. Your workers should drive forklifts carefully and ensure that the dock plate can sufficiently support a given load.
Employers should also keep their docks clean, clear of debris, and ensure they aren’t slippery. Additionally, there should be visual warnings near docks as well as signs prohibiting employees from “dock jumping.” OSHA recommends painting the edge of your docks to improve visibility.
An estimated 1 in 10 forklifts (also known as “powered industrial trucks” are involved in an accident each year. They account for dozens of deaths and tens of thousands of injuries.
All forklift operators should be trained and certified. In addition, you must keep your forklifts in good working condition and institute penalties for workers who fail to respect precautions such as driving the forklift slowly through the warehouse.
Many fatal injuries can be prevented through caution and proper signage. Just take a look at OSHA’s statistics on the causes of fatal forklift accidents:
- 42% - crushed by a tipped over vehicle
- 25% - crushed between vehicle and a surface
- 11% - crushed between two vehicles
- 10% - struck or run over by a forklift
- 8% - struck by falling material
- 4% - fall from platform on the forks
It’s against federal law for anyone who is uncertified or under 18 to operate a forklift. Remember, even if your employees are OSHA-certified, they must complete a refresher course or recertification every three years. In addition to safety risks, there are steep financial penalties for employers who don’t comply.
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You might wonder what issues conveyors could cause, but your employees could have serious accidents with them. Here is just a sample of the many conveyor belt accidents catalogued by OSHA in 2018:
- An employee fell into a chain-driven conveyor and was killed
- An employee was asphyxiated after getting caught by a conveyor
- An employee lost two fingers after his fingers were caught
- An employee broke his leg in a conveyor roller
When operating conveyors, workers should tie back and tuck in long hair, wear hard hats and safety shoes, refrain from wearing jewelry or loose clothing, and know where to locate the shut-off switches. Employees should never step onto conveyor belts, and your warehouse should have signs communicating this prohibition.
Install proper guards in spots where employees can be caught, trapped, crushed, or experience friction burns. Employers should also put up guardrails where conveyor belts pass through the floor or ceiling.
So long as potentially hazardous issues are addressed, conveyor belts can actually increase workplace safety and health. They reduce the occurence of musculoskeletal disorders from repetitive movements like lifting and bending. Conveyor systems can also be effective tools in warehouse automation, for Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems.
That said, employees can still develop these issues if they don’t work at conveyor belts in an ergonomic fashion. You can implement the following conveyor best practices:
- Conveyor speed shouldn’t exceed 10 meters per minute and should be adjusted based on the capabilities of the average worker.
- Conveyor width shouldn’t force workers to reach more than 45 centimeters for tasks involving repetitive movement.
- Conveyor height should be adjustable with the default set to accommodate the tallest worker.
Materials Storage and Handling
Failing to properly store materials can lead to slipping or tripping. Stack loads evenly and keep the heaviest loads on middle or lower shelves.
In addition, poor posture when lifting or managing heavy loads can lead to injuries or chronic pain. You can prevent physical injuries from manual lifting and handling through ergonomic and task-specific training. Ensure your employees have access to proper equipment and encourage them to enlist the help of other employees if a load is too heavy.
The following are signs that an employee should seek assistance from a co-worker:
- They can’t properly grasp/lift a load.
- They can’t see around or over the load they’re carrying.
- They feel they can’t safely handle a load.
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Hazardous Chemicals and Safety Data Sheets
Warehouses with hazardous chemicals carry enormous responsibility. According to OSHA, 2018 saw everything from a chemical explosion fatality to frostbite from exposure to liquid ammonia.
All warehouse operators should evaluate their potentially hazardous chemical substances and ensure workers receive training on how to handle them. Additionally, every hazardous chemical should be properly labelled and include a Safety Data Sheet (SDS). Employees should also know what to do in case of spills.
Your forklifts and other cordless machinery make charging stations a staple in your warehouse. However, charging stations bring the risk of fires and explosions. A safe warehouse will have enough ventilation as well as readily available fire extinguishers.
You should also have personal protective equipment (PPE) on hand in case battery fluids leak. Most batteries contain corrosive fluids, like sulfuric acid. So PPE and spill kits are necessary safety precautions.
Maintain Proper Lockout or Tagout Procedures
One of the most prevalent risks in warehouses is “hazardous energy.” These are energy sources, such as electrical, mechanical, or hydraulic energy sources, that can start up unexpectedly and injure or kill workers. This often happens when workers try troubleshooting jammed or broken machines that suddenly start working again.
According to OSHA, hazardous energy control failures account for almost 10% of serious accidents across industries. By maintaining proper lockout/tagout (LOTO) procedures, warehouse operators can ensure equipment is properly isolated from energy sources while workers make repairs to avoid unexpected start ups.
Many of the hazards and safety precautions we’ve listed are common sense, and that’s because they’re supposed to be. Regulations around occupational safety aren’t designed to be cumbersome to your business.
One study even demonstrated that government safety inspections don’t lead to negative economic outcomes like sales or employment levels. Rather, they exist to standardize processes that, by and large, protect people.
How Can I Avoid Legal Action or Citations?
Understanding all your obligations and responsibilities as a warehouse owner or operator is overwhelming. OSHA provides countless resources for employers, and it’s a good idea to understand their overview of employer responsibility for safety and health.
This overview ranges from the general directive to eliminate “serious recognized hazards” to specific information on OSHA standards.
Your warehouse operators should pay special attention to the following directives.
Warn Employees of Potential Hazards Using Signs and Color Codes
OSHA provides guidelines on specific colors and symbols to use on physical hazards, safety equipment locations, and protective equipment.
- Red: Identifies safety cans, portable containers of flammable liquids, danger signs, emergency stop bars, stop buttons, and more.
- Yellow: Identifies caution in particular areas where falls, tripping, and more can occur.
There are additional guidelines provided by signage companies that indicate “safety orange” for machine parts and exposed parts, “safety blue” for equipment under repair, “safety purple” for radiation hazards, and more.
At the end of the day, this is a matter of clear communication rather than color coding. The specific guideline from OSHA is to “Use color codes, posters, labels or signs to warn employees of potential hazards” so be mindful of this when assessing your warehouse environment.
Maintain a Workplace Free of “Serious Recognized Hazards”
Many of the hazards listed in the previous section are both serious and recognized. Ensure that your floors are free of any equipment or materials, and that employees wear the proper safety equipment,. Potential safety hazards often crop up when people cut corners, so encouraging deliberation and thoughtfulness while working is an important workplace culture principle.
Comply with Applicable OSHA Standards
Warehouses aren’t all created equal. Your warehouse may hold textiles while another holds hazardous chemicals. OSHA provides specific guidelines on how companies should handle different goods and equipment. In fact, the OSHA website allows you to search for regulatory standards in the following categories:
- General Industry
- Record keeping
For instance, if you work in the chemical industry you’ll need to provide Safety Data Sheets (SDS) for all hazardous chemical products. These forms have to be readily and easily available to employees.
Failing to Comply with OSHA Can Cost You in More Ways Than One
At the federal level, OSHA has three levels of violations with maximum penalty amounts:
- Serious: $13,260 per violation
- Failure to Abate: $13,260 per day beyond the abatement date
- Willful: $132,598 per violation
Keep in mind that these fines are per violation. An employer cited for willful violations against 10 employees could face a fine that may put them out of business.
One option is to settle to reduce the fine, but this may weaken a company’s defense if the employee or employees choose to sue in civil court.
In 2012, OSHA cited a New Jersey warehouse company for “nine serious and two willful safety violations” with proposed fines of over $130,000. What did this company do? For starters, their willful violation involved letting workers ride on forklift forks, leading to potential falls from 10 feet high. Their serious violations included sealed exits, damaged trucks in operations, and improperly stacking materials.
Small Businesses Can Receive On-Site Consultations
OSHA offers on-site safety and health consultations for small business owners. It’s separate from the inspection arm of the agency and hazards aren’t reported. Companies are just responsible for addressing any issues the consultant points out.
What is the Correct Process to Follow if an Employee is Injured or Dies?
Employers are required to make a report to OSHA in instances where an employee:
- Is killed on the job: Must be reported within 8 hours
- Has a work-related hospitalization: Must be reported within 24 hours
- Has a work-related amputation: Must be reported within 24 hours
- Has a work-related loss of an eye: Must be reported within 24 hours
Warehouse operators can make a report in-person at a nearby OSHA office, calling their 24-hour hotline, or reporting online. Even if your company size or industry exempts you from keeping routine OSHA records, you are still required to report in such circumstances.
Some states have OSHA-approved state-level plans. If your state falls into this category, you will need to check for specific guidelines within your jurisdiction. That said, most states attempt to make their regulations as meaningful as OSHA’s regulations.
An Ounce of Workplace Hazard Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure
Adhering to workplace safety regulations and best practices creates a happy and productive work environment. People deserve to feel safe in their place of work. You can facilitate this by encouraging a culture of workplace safety and taking a zero tolerance approach to violations.
Written by Ruthie Bowles
Ruthie is a content marketing consultant for Logiwa. Her specialties include small business development and inventory management.