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How to Solve the Ergonomic Problems of Floor-Level Carton Picking

OSHA advises against carton picking beneath rack beams. What can you do to reduce your risks?

Ergonomics Inquiry

order picker in a rack warehouse

When working with palletized goods stored at floor level beneath a rack beam in a typical warehouse, there are significant issues for order pickers who execute these tasks daily, including strains and stresses that can lead to major injuries, down time, and worker compensation expenses.

Injury potential when working in rack bays

Workers encounter injury hazards working in the bottom bays of pallet racking. These issues are so prevalent that the agency has released specific guidelines on how to deal with them. The potential for injury or chronic issues is high for workers who do these jobs every day.

Ergonomics problems with picking inside rack bays

  • Bending: workers stoop beneath the beam level
  • Constriction: workers cannot stand straight once a carton or component is picked from the pallet. They must back out, stooped, while carrying the load.
  • Squatting: Cartons are always picked from the front of the pallet first, leaving a gap of product deep in the bay, where people must bend or squat beneath the beam to reach it–a breeding ground for shoulder and back injuries.
  • Unnatural angles: Since the picker is both bent over and constricted, with a potentially heavy load in their hands at a “cantilever” angle, the ergonomics are dangerous.
  • Head bumps: The worker is bent beneath a heavy steel beam. Head impacts are very possible if they raise too quickly into that beam.

It’s important to mitigate these safety hazards before injury occurs. What are some methods you can utilize?

Roll-out pallets

pallet rack row with roll-out pallet system to reduce ergonomic issues related to bending and stretching.

This option lets you outfit the floor level with roll-out carts that can be pulled from beneath the lowest beam level on tracks to prevent reaching, bending, stooping and crawling under the rack. The roll-out chassis has a standard brake system and holds up to 3,000 pounds and extends 85% of its depth, which is more than enough to allow picking.

For a single layer of cartons in a picking position, for example, you could set the beam at the height of the pallet chassis plus the height of the pallet, plus the height of the cart, plus enough space above the top carton. That could be as little as 2 feet, which means higher density storage in that rack bay.

Roll out racks aren’t designed to move around the facility, and stay in their place beneath the rack.

Rolling Pallets beneath your lowest level rack beams

Rolling Pallet

Unlike the roll-out racks above, these pallets are designed for mobility. You can pull an entire pallet or large container out of a bay and move it to another.

  • They let you to pull the entire pallet out from beneath a rack bay for ergonomic access to loaded goods.
  • They come with handles so your order pickers will simply roll the pallet out into the aisle, take a carton from a much more comfortable and ergonomic stance, then roll it back once the order is picked.
  • They can be specified as “straight line” or turning, in case you need to significantly move the pallet away from its assigned bay.

Aside from carton picks beneath a beam, they can also help with bulk picking. Many warehouses store wire bins, filled with bulk components, sitting beneath the lowest rack beam level. Workers bend to retrieve a single part from the bin, and are at the ergonomic risks associated with that posture.

To deal with the issue, place the bin on a rolling pallet and then pull it into the aisle for parts picking. The worker can access it without bending under that beam.

Video: mobile pallets

Remember that cartons picked from the floor are always more difficult than those picked from the ergonomic golden zone

The types of picks that tend to happen at floor levels are slow movers with lower demand. Cartons that are picked frequently should not be stored on the floor pallet. They should be either placed in carton flow storage, or on an intermediate beam that doesn’t force people to bend beneath a beam that is 4′ off the ground.

While that method can result in less optimized vertical space, it will help protect workers from some of the stresses of picking beneath a beam. Ideally, fast movers are in dynamic storage, and slow movers are stored so that it’s ergonomic to reach them.

Why not use a pallet jack?

Using a pallet jack would work similarly to a dedicated pallet, and is an option. Typically, workers must pull that pallet jack around the warehouse, even to pick one or two cartons in a long row. It’s a good way to address the problems on a small scale, but impractical for large facilities with many picking positions.

What about workers who just ignore the pallet and bend anyway?

Studies show that people resist safer lifting methods, in particular when they are young. If you undertake a program to reduce the ergonomic issues and injury potential of this issue, training and reinforcement must be part of the process. Adding a way to pull out and access pallets is critical, but the process should be enforced.

Edge bumpers for reducing bumps against rack beams

Rack Bumper

Aside from the musculoskeletal concerns, there are frequent issues with head bumps on the bottom of steel beams. Most everyone who’s worked in a warehouse has likely hit their head on a low beam from time to time. While we tend to want to reduce or eliminate the motion that causes head bumps, sometimes it is unavoidable. To reduce the issues with it, cushion the front and bottom of the beam overhead to soften impact to the head if it hits the beam. It’s an inexpensive method that also makes the beam more visible, since the guards can be bright safety yellow or photoluminescent.

Walk through and observe to catch other neglected ergonomic & safety issues

From time to time walk through your facility and watch how workers tackle their assigned tasks. If you have a safety manager, take them with you and discuss ways to correct the ergonomic and safety problems you see. Take notes, determine solutions, set an agenda for completion, do training. In the end, money spent on the front end will save dollars exponentially.

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Scott Stone is Cisco-Eagle's Vice President of Marketing with more than thirty years of experience in material handling, warehousing and industrial operations. His work is published in multiple industry journals an websites on a variety of warehousing topics. He writes about automation, warehousing, safety, manufacturing and other areas of concern for industrial operations and those who operate them.

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