Warehouse safety: Protecting people, equipment and productivity


Warehouse and distribution centre efficiency and productivity has risen tremendously in recent decades. However, the gains can be jeopardised by safety breakdowns that lead to personal injury, equipment and product damage. In facilities of any size, this includes costly vehicle impact to pallet racking, which can undermine necessary storage and product throughput.

According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, each year in the United States, nearly 100 workers are killed and another 20,000 are seriously injured in forklift-related incidents.

Efficiencies have been gained from better floor plans that allow for quicker throughput, from innovative racking solutions, and from robotics and other automation. At the same time, distribution facility employees are more productive than ever. Nevertheless, without the proper industrial safety products and approaches, collisions involving personnel with forklifts, tow tractors, and other vehicles can be serious, potentially leading to grievous injury, loss of life, and litigation. Vehicle impact with facility equipment, structures, and controls can also have severe consequences.

Racking, work platforms like mezzanines, and modular offices inside distribution warehouses also need to be protected with barriers to forklift traffic, such as guardrails, according to Jim Augustyniak, a regional sales manager at Steel King Industries, a designer and manufacturer of warehouse storage racks, pallet racks and material handling/safety products since 1970.

“Badly damaged racking [from a vehicle collision] loaded with inventory could potentially collapse without warning if not immediately unloaded, inspected, and repaired. A forklift could also go right through the wall of an inplant modular office inside a distribution warehouse,” says Augustyniak.

Distribution center productivity can also be compromised if important equipment like racking, conveyors, electrical boxes, and control panels are not properly protected with barriers from vehicle traffic. In many cases, critical components must be replaced after damage at a substantial cost along with lengthy lead times. “With recent parts shortages and logistical delays, replacement could take several months or more, resulting in extended equipment downtime and lower warehouse productivity,” says Augustyniak.

Fortunately, a well-designed and properly installed array of safety products, including guardrail, gates, and accessories, can greatly reduce such incidents and protect the facility’s people, equipment, and productivity. 

In today’s tight labour market, a proactive approach to safety can also pay off in hiring and employee retention.

“Labor is in high demand now and people want to work in a safe environment. So, a company that shows that it prioritizes keeping its warehouse employees safe with visible barriers like engineered guardrails [to prevent vehicle-pedestrian collisions and rack/equipment damage] has an edge in labour retention,” says Augustyniak.

Optimising Safety

In warehouses and distribution centres, collisions between forklifts or other vehicles and employees or visitors are a prime concern, so providing adequate protection is essential.

At a minimum, walkways and work areas around racking should be clearly defined. Lines painted on the floor can be helpful in promoting such separation. However, when no physical protection is provided, forklifts and other vehicles can cross over to the pedestrian side for reasons such as operator inattention/distraction or insufficient training.

A more comprehensive solution is to establish visual and physical barriers in the form of guardrails, such as Steel King’s Steel Guard and Armor Guard. The guardrails, made with 11-gauge steel, keep pedestrians in defined walkways and vehicles along predetermined routes with protective barriers maintaining separation.

For heavy duty protection, three-ribbed guardrail like Steel Guard is designed to withstand impacts from forklifts and other vehicles commonly operated in warehouses and distribution centers. The guardrail can be installed with a single rail or a double rail that offers a 42-inch-high barrier.

A medium-duty guardrail like Armor Guard is usually a sufficient and more economical means to separate and protect people in workstations and walkways from light shop traffic. They have two ribs and can be installed at a single or triple rail height.

The guardrails also facilitate efficient traffic flow. When pedestrians are kept out of traffic lanes by guardrails, forklift operators can maintain their expected pace unimpeded, so overall efficiency is improved.

When easy employee access is needed, durable safety gates can be utilised where required. For greater flexibility of use, Augustyniak recommends utilising safety gates with post openings designed to accommodate an easy change in the swing direction of the gate. For added safety, sturdy steel springs should automatically close the gate after an employee uses it.

Guardrails can also be installed to protect a wide range of important equipment. This includes rack aisle ends, mezzanines/platforms, conveyor systems, machinery, mechanicals, electrical panels, building features, and offices situated amid material handling or manufacturing operations. With racking systems and mezzanines protected, inventory stored on the structural equipment is also safeguarded.

Finally, pallet racks can be protected from one of the most likely sources of damage – forklifts – with accessories like Guard Dawg, a highly visible and effective rack protector. The protector’s sections are anchored to the floor, nestling the uprights and standard footplates of the racking. With a low-profile design, this safety equipment is often used at intersections and along high traffic routes to preserve the rack that is most likely to be damaged. 

As warehouse and distribution centres become larger and more efficient, it becomes even more important for operation managers to sufficiently protect the safety of their employees and equipment along with the facility’s productivity. Those who proactively implement the proper safeguards, including guardrail and accessories, will profit for years to come in this regard.

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