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Protecting Order Pickers in Rack Aisles

Picking orders in a pallet rack aisle

“We need help before someone gets hurt”

The situation is familiar: in a busy warehouse or distribution center, you can have dozens or hundreds of order pickers that walk the floor with carts and clipboards or scan guns to pick orders for shipping. These are usually focused people who have the job in mind. After all, you’ve probably told them how speed is of the essence – which it is. The problem is that in many or most operations, there are also powered industrial trucks (forklifts, walkies, electric powered jacks) operating in the same space, often in cramped pallet rack aisles. And guess what? They’re busy and focused on the job, too.

And these two groups are working the same space, at the same time. It’s almost assured that if you have this situation, you’ve had accidents, or near-accidents — which you may never hear of, until the near-miss isn’t a miss at all.

“But we train our people”

As you should. But it’s not enough. In OSHA’s fatality reports for 2012, between 12/14/11 and 3/5/12, there were 16 forklift related deaths. Most years there is a death every three days, and many others suffer serious injuries. If you have forklifts, their safety should always be a primary, ongoing concern.

The odds aren’t in your favor if you aren’t proactive.

Workers in mixed traffic areas should observe a single-bay rule. If an order picking employee is at a bay working, then the floor from the front of that bay to the next aisle is exclusively his. Forklifts shouldn’t be working in or traveling through that space (the same rule applies for the forklift; if it is there first, pedestrians cannot enter the space). If a walkie is working a bay, pedestrians and other vehicles should stay clear of it.  Pedestrians and forklifts should not come within ten feet of each other while working – not behind, not beside, not in front.

Training is mandatory, but the daily grind of work, deadlines, and customer demand erodes training. Busy people focus on tasks; you know of times you’ve missed a meeting or forgotten to eat lunch because you were absorbed in work. Imagine a harried worker in your warehouse. He’s going to get that order picked, and he’s going to do it now, and maybe he won’t necessarily remember to observe the behavioral safeguards and rules you’ve put into place.

“I’ve had trouble enforcing our rules”

Walk  the floor. Are pickers cutting off powered industrial trucks in aisles? Are they walking behind vehicles when they are working in a rack aisle? Are they walking behind the trucks? Are they crossing busy aisles without regard to safety? Are trucks going too fast for the area? Are all parties respecting a “one bay” rule? Are people working by any prescribed traffic management plan?  Do you have a defined traffic management plan, for that matter?

You can discipline people – even fire them – but what other steps can you take before you do that?

  • picking from flow rack, mounted in pallet racking systemAlternate the pick sequence between pedestrians and lifts. If you can control it, design your order picking sequence so that you don’t have forklifts or walkies working the same aisles as pedestrians at the same time. This helps remove behavioral and training issues. This would require you to thoroughly plot order picks per aisle and assign timeslots for aisles or areas to power and walking traffic that keep them separate. This method can work particularly well in situations where flow racks are installed into pallet rack, with case picking in flow racks at the floor level and palletized storage on higher beam levels.
  • Look hard at the work flow and product slotting design. Evaluate the ways your forklifts and pedestrians interact. You have a workflow, whether it’s by design or accident. If it’s not a designed process, map what happens and then change it to make people working in rack aisles safer. If your current workflow encourages unsafe short cuts instead of encouraging safe practices, it’s a problem. Rearrange it to encourage safety – to make safe behaviors easier, and unsafe behaviors more difficult. Workers will take the path of least resistance, if left without guidance. They resist things that cause more work to execute the same tasks. Is there a way to arrange stock to segregate pedestrians from forklifts so their paths cross less frequently, or not at all? Can you service some areas with less-dangerous pallet jacks, rather than powered options?
  • Separate your bays with gates or chains when being utilized. If you’re using the one picker per bay rule, use articulated or folding gates attached to rack uprights to block access while the picker is using the bay. You could even utilize a hook-and-chain, so long as the chain is bright and visible. Attach an articulating barrier gate to each bay upright. Once the barrier is extended, the rule should be that a lift can’t enter while a pedestrian is working the bay, and vice-versa.
  • Make your pedestrians easy to see with high visibility apparel. Think high-visibility, bright yellow hardhats, vests, and armbands. They make people much more visible to lift truck drivers.  Visitors and contractors should also be required to wear this apparel. Also consider using safety & visibility mirrors in the picking area to help people and lifts see each other. They can easily be mounted at the correct height on rack uprights to increase visibility.
  • Automate as much safety as possible. It takes just one momentary lapse of judgment, one bad day, or one distraction to cause tragedy. Why should you risk of devastating accidents solely on the training and behavior of busy people? Forklift backup video camera systems, proximity detectors,  rack-mounted motion sensors or detectors, and systems such as AisleCop forklift safety gates are all ways to help people not cross the wrong aisle or work in the wrong area at the wrong time. Another good idea is to use robotics, rather than people in areas where you have fixed operation and frequent forklift traffic. Robots can palletize, stretch-wrap, and even pick in many areas.
  • Graduated discipline: Implement a system similar to a “3 strikes” system that progressively elevates the severity of violations, when detected. The first strike might be a written reprimand. Never do simple verbals, as people take those less seriously. Also, a written reprimand creates a documented history of you working to make that employee safer, in the event he or she is ever involved in an accident. This step could also involve refresher safety training and a review of all operational safety rules. The second step should be something substantial – an unpaid suspension, being sent home immediately, demotion, or other benefits taken away. Again, document this incident. If the behavior doesn’t improve, then you can take the third step and terminate the employee. The kind of person who requires step three is often the kind of person who has little regard for themselves or others, anyway, and who needs to be removed from your operation. They’ll cause lawsuits, elevate your EMR rating, and your insurance premiums.
  • Implement safety incentives. Although there are concerns with OSHA whistleblower rules when it comes to safety violations, this is a positive step you can take to lift awareness for pedestrian-forklift safety. If  you can design bonuses that don’t encourage people to non-report accidents or near-misses, you’re fine. Cash works, as does food (a barbecue or pizza day.) See our article on Safety Bonuses and OSHA whistleblower rules for more information.
  • Get management buy-in at all levels. Even if you’re dedicated to safety, or are in a safety-specific position, you can’t always influence all the stakeholders to become more focused on safety.  Warehouse supervisors and team leaders – the guys with the most influence – are far more concerned with production than safety rules. Production is tangible and they may only think about safety when it’s forced their way, or when there is an incident or near-miss. Does management make safe behavior an important metric to people on the plant floor? Are the foremen, supervisors, and other people who set the worker performance standards the same people who set up the safety rules? Do they speak to each other?

Scott Stone Cisco-Eagle's Director of Marketing. He has over 25 years of experience in the industry.