Warehouse Safety: It's No Accident

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Careful planning and a dedication to safety are top priorities for keeping warehouse workers injury-free. Here is your no-slip, no-trip, ergonomically correct guide to warehouse safety.

Where most warehouse visitors simply see shelves, pallets, and boxes, Dixie Brock sees danger. In fact, Brock glimpses danger wherever she looks.

It's not that she is easily frightened or overly cautious. Brock sees danger because it is a key part of her job as national safety and workers compensation manager for APL Logistics, an Oakland, Calif.-based transportation services provider that manages more than 100 warehouses worldwide.

"I constantly analyze accidents," Brock says. "I study them, search for causes, and try to find ways to prevent them."

More warehouse operators need to think like Brock, says Gary Gagliardi, vice president of Safety Resources, a safety consulting firm located in Indianapolis. While companies tend to focus their safety efforts on manufacturing sites and transport vehicles, warehouses also require attention, he says.

Yet, when it comes to warehouse safety, employees and management often tug in different directions. "Workers concentrate on going home with their fingers and toes intact," Gagliardi says.

"Managers are also concerned about safety, but they focus more on where the company is headed, and how profitable it can be."

To make sure that a warehouse is both safe and efficient, managers and workers need to pull together to spot dangerous practices and plan ways to eliminate threats.

"Companies need a culture of safety," says Gagliardi. "Creating a safe work environment requires a good deal of effort, but it brings benefits to both workers and management."

Adding Insult to Injury

Warehouse mishaps tend to be less severe than most manufacturing- and transportation-related accidents. Yet a series of relatively minor incidents can still seriously injure employees and lead to lost productivity, higher insurance bills, and government fines.

"The primary injuries occurring in a warehouse stem from lifting, straining, and turning," says Joel Anderson, president and CEO of the International Warehouse Logistics Association, a non-profit organization based in Des Plaines, Ill., that represents more than 500 third-party warehouse and logistics service providers.

Similarly, APL reports these top three injury categories at its warehouses:

  1. Slips, trips, and falls.
  2. Ergonomic-related pains such as lifting, reaching, pulling, and pushing.
  3. Material handling incidents such as dropped boxes and forklift accidents.

Although not particularly severe, warehouse accidents are numerous—the warehousing and storage industry experiences nearly 15,000 injuries and illnesses each year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To keep a lid on accidents, warehouse operators should stress worker training and establish safety best practices, says Bob Shaunnessey, executive director of the Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC), an Oak Brook, Ill.-based organization dedicated to warehouse management and its role in the supply chain.

For most warehouses, forming a safety committee is the first step toward implementing enhanced safety procedures.

A safety committee's members are usually selected from specific organizational groups—including warehouse floor workers, shift supervisors, and department managers. This approach gives everyone a voice, but keeps the committee's size to an effective number of participants.

"Safety committees are a common practice," says Shaunnessey. "In most cases, when management supports the committee, workers are likely to gain a safe work environment."

Safety committees should not be confused with safety meetings. A safety meeting usually includes all floor employees, as well as a management representative, to ensure that key issues are addressed.

"Typically, a safety committee is an effective safety management tool for large employers, and safety meetings are effective for small employers," notes Shaunnessey.

OSHA's Impact

One pivotal player in warehouse safety is the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency responsible for ensuring safe workplaces.

OSHA exists to make sure businesses that do not take safety seriously won't imperil their employees. Many warehouse operators take a skeptical view of OSHA, believing they can maintain a safe working environment without government oversight.

Warehouse operators that maintain a safe workplace generally have little to fear from OSHA, says Alex Sierra, health, safety, and environmental manager for Fluor Constructors, the construction arm of Irving, Texas-based engineering, procurement, construction, and maintenance service company Fluor.

"Warehouse managers need to realize that investing in OSHA compliance, and safety in general, is a smart move," says Sierra. "The average cost of a recordable injury in the United States is $35,000, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. This expense directly impacts a company's bottom line, as well as workers' compensation and productivity costs."

The best way to avoid becoming entangled with OSHA is by not attracting attention to your organization.

"If companies report recurring accidents, or other problems that attract OSHA's attention, they are usually inspected," Shaunnessey says. "During an inspection, OSHA may find unsafe practices and require the employer to correct them. If inspectors find egregious safety violations, they often impose fines."

Warehouse operators who comply with OSHA safety guidelines don't have much to worry about, says Gagliardi of Safety Resources.

"Generally, unless a 'red flag' pops up, OSHA does not have the manpower or the time to inspect a lot of warehouses," he explains.

No Worries

While OSHA wields enormous clout, worrying constantly about a run-in with the agency won't enhance warehouse safety and can actually be counterproductive.

"OSHA should not be a warehouse manager's main safety concern," says Gagliardi, who believes warehouse operators should view OSHA safety regulations as benchmarks to exceed. "Companies with advanced warehouse safety programs rise well above OSHA standards."

APL's Brock points to forklifts as one area where it pays to enact company policies that go above and beyond OSHA requirements.

"OSHA enforces forklift seating requirements, but its regulations do not mandate that forklift operators stay inside the cage, for example," she explains.

And, the fact that OSHA doesn't regulate a particular area or practice doesn't let a warehouse operator off the hook if a related accident occurs.

To discover whether exceeding OSHA requirements in a particular area is a good idea, safety committees must identify weaknesses in current practices. Warehouse operators also need to analyze the reason for past accidents rather than simply recording their outcome.

"Knowing an employee suffered a fractured arm doesn't tell the manager how to correct the operating procedures that caused an injury," says Brock.

"But if the manager knows the elbow was fractured when it was outside the cage and the forklift driver turned a corner too sharply, it becomes obvious that the employee needs to be retrained on driving speed, leaving enough room to safely turn corners, and keeping their body inside the cage."

Staying on top of safety incidents is another guaranteed way to steer clear of OSHA's tender mercies. Managers must stress the importance of taking immediate action whenever a safety hazard is identified.

"If managers pass the same slippery oil spot on the warehouse floor every day without taking action, for example, what message are they sending employees?" asks Sierra.

Resistance is Futile

Perhaps the biggest mistake warehouse operators make when dealing with OSHA is fighting agency rulings—a futile pursuit, according to Gagliardi. "It does no good to argue with OSHA compliance officers. Companies will not win the battle," he notes.

Despite the criticism directed at OSHA, most of the agency's regulations make sense, says WERC's Shaunnessey. After a rough start in the 1970s and 1980s, the agency has evolved to the point where it now works closely with businesses to create guidelines that are fair to both workers and employers.

"OSHA has become more proactive in its efforts, and is trying to be more practical," Shaunnessey says.

OSHA, however, is not the only safety regulator that warehouse managers have to pay attention to. The federal government has become increasingly concerned about hazardous materials transportation, including how these substances are handled at origin and destination sites. As a result, U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) inspectors show up routinely at warehouses.

"It's not uncommon for our facilities to receive a walk-in DOT visit," Brock says. "Ten years ago, DOT officials never visited warehouses. They were often involved in the transportation sector of the business, but not in warehousing."

Another concern among warehouse operators is the growing influence of state regulators; most states now have some type of worker safety agency.

"Many states merely adopt federal warehouse safety standards," says Brock. But a few states actually strive to exceed OSHA mandates. California, for example, boasts rules that are more stringent than federal OSHA, says Sierra.

To cope with state safety agencies, warehouse operators should follow the same practices as they do when dealing with federal guidelines, say the experts: know and follow the rules, aim high, and don't attract attention.

"If a company complies with the toughest state regulations, it usually is in compliance with other states as well," says Sierra.

Creating a Safety Culture

Creating a safe warehouse does not happen by accident, it happens by planning to prevent accidents. Although forming a safety committee is a good first step toward building better worker safety practices, warehouse operators also need to work toward creating a "safety culture" inside their facilities.

"Warehouse managers are accountable for safety. They need to be aware of that, and lead by example," says Sierra. "All company employees should feel that safety is their responsibility—that is part of building a safety culture."

"Maintaining an efficient safety culture is a continuous effort," Gagliardi agrees. "Safety is not a one-time deal; companies cannot accomplish a culture of safety with one or two yearly meetings. But emphasizing safety throughout the company has a positive influence on its success."

Unfortunately, the benefits derived from safety training and practices are hard to directly quantify. As a result, many companies work to meet only basic government requirements. But such shortsighted thinking can burn companies over the long haul.

"Because safety efforts are not direct activities that generate profit, people tend to forget them," says Shaunnessey. "But ultimately, having a safe workplace puts companies in a position to be more profitable."

Safety Savings

An emphasis on safety can generate cost savings—both direct and indirect. Warehouse operators who take the time to analyze their safety training and practices can reap financial benefits, says Patrick Floyd, senior executive vice president of operations for Total Logistic Control (TLC), a third-party logistics provider headquartered in Zeeland, Mich.

TLC, which operates 83 distribution centers nationwide, implemented a comprehensive safety plan that generated fast and measurable results.

"TLC reduced its recordable incident rate from 11.5 in 2000 to 3.63 in 2006," notes Floyd. "This helped reduce workers' compensation costs from $2.53 per man-hour to 30 cents per man-hour."

The 3PL also makes safety an essential responsibility of its facility managers, office managers, and other supervisory personnel.

"Our managers' annual key performance indicators are based upon how well their facilities comply with OSHA, safety, and process improvement," Floyd says. "They cannot ignore safety concerns. If they do, it affects their performance as a leader and it affects their compensation."

To keep safety top of mind for employees, training needs to touch on all key areas that affect warehouse safety, notes Brock. APL, for instance, offers separate programs on topics including slips and falls, forklift operation, heat exhaustion, ergonomics, and hazardous materials.

"Safety is not separate from what warehouse employees do every day," she says. "Safety is a key aspect of how they do their job, and that's the mindset they must have."

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