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Pallet Rack Safety: Preventable Risks

How to keep your pallet racks safe and functional

Pallet Rack Inquiry

warehouse worker and pallet rack aisles.

Pallet racks are safe and stable storage for pallets and bulk loads in warehouses, factories and other facilities, but you should be aware of the kind of dangers they pose when misapplied, modified or neglected. In any safety program, you’re always looking for risks you can prevent. What are some avoidable risks when it comes to pallet rack?

Avoidable risk #1: Modifying your rack or load profile

Wire pallet rack decking with a Never modify your racks without professional assistance. Adding to them, cutting on them, welding things on to them, adding third party accessories or otherwise changing the rack’s structure without professional consultation can compromise structural integrity. Importantly, if that rack collapses, you have likely taken on 100% liability for any damages or injuries that occur based on the collapse. If you modify racks–even through a qualified engineer–retain for your files approvals and any drawings that were generated through the process. Some modifications may involve local permitting, depending on local codes.

Modifications that may affect rack capacity and safety

pallet rack frame capacity and beam spacing relationship.

  • Reconfiguration or relocation. If you move existing racks, be sure your installers are qualified and that the components are reassembled correctly.
  • If you acquire a facility with racks, you’re responsible for them. If such a rack has been cut, welded, or has mixed parts, have it inspected and evaluated before loading it.
  • Mixing parts from different manufacturers or sources can invalidate capacity ratings. Swapping beams–even with the same capacity–may change the dynamics of connectors and design that can affect the rack’s capacity or balance.
  • Used rack should be evaluated carefully. You don’t know where those beams and uprights have been, what loads they have carried or if they have been modified.
  • Changing the number of beam levels affects upright capacity. Changing the distance between levels always affects upright capacity and integrity–sometimes dramatically. The more space between levels, the lower the capacity. Along the same lines, be sure your rack doesn’t exceed the height-to-depth ratio.
  • Changing your load affects your rack’s capacity and balance. Make sure any new loads or stock changes don’t overload it. Watch for significant changes in load profile (shape, balance) as well as weight.
  • Frame extensions to increase rack height are a major modification and will affect every aspect of a pallet rack. Extensions should be checked for compatibility with the beams and uprights and should be braced.
  • The addition of certain accessories and components should trigger re-evaluation. We’ve had customers modify their racks to add flow storage, bulk hand storage, sliding compartments and other functionality. If those changes reduce the number of levels, the overall capacity of the rack is affected. Any significant change is cause for evaluating capacity and functionality. For instance, something as simple as adding decks changes your capacity. Changing the way loads sit on a deck also affects capacity–sometimes significantly.

carton flow lanes inserted into pallet rack.

Above: pallet rack double row with integrated flow storage. This is a great solution for adding each or carton picking to the lower levels of a rack, but will impact the structural integrity and total capacity of the system. Evaluate those factors when you implement the carton flow. 

Changing parts, loads and other modifications can be done, but should always be evaluated by a qualified person. You can generally replace an upright with the same one, built by the same manufacturer with confidence assuming it’s correctly installed, bolted down and loaded. Adding a different type of upright or repairing the leg of a damaged one should always be done professionally.

What about adding on to your existing racks?

Anything that connects to existing racks modifies it. If you’re adding new racks that aren’t connected to your existing system, and both are designed to specifications and installed correctly, there should be no issue. If you are adding to the ends of an existing row, extra care is warranted, even if it’s the same manufacturer and model of rack. If your new rack affects the design of your existing racks, the entire installation should be reviewed for compliance to ANSI/RMI specifications.

Avoidable risk #2: Never inspecting your racks

If you’ve spent much time in this industry, you’ve been in warehouses where the rack system is battered, bent and at times, flat-out scary-looking.

pallet rack inspection in a warehouse

These racks often hold up for years or decades with visible damage, but here’s the problem with that: their tolerances are lower for a forklift bump, pallet shift or seismic event. They could collapse during stresses that properly-maintained systems would survive. It’s far better to inspect, repair or replace.

America doesn’t have a national regulatory standard for rack inspections similar to those in Canada or the United Kingdom, but you should check your local building codes for any regulations that apply to your facility. RMI, which is an alliance of pallet rack manufacturers, recommends regular inspections.

“…The storage rack system owner should establish and implement a program of regularly scheduled storage rack system inspections. The inspections should be performed by a qualified person familiar with the storage rack design and installation requirements retained or employed by the storage rack system owner.”

Only a qualified engineer can tell you whether a particular component is safe for continued use, but you can often head off issues by keeping an eye out on your rack system. Visual inspections let you find and address problems faster when they occur, and should always accompany a scheduled professional inspection process rather than replace it. See our guide to rack inspections here.

While a visual inspection for damage, deflection and poor loading practices is useful, you’ll still want to schedule a qualified inspector to evaluate your entire system as part of your building safety and maintenance process.

Are rack and rack safety subject to nationwide safety standards?

The answer to that question is, not specifically. Many other countries have exacting regulations, and many local code boards may have more strict standards written specifically for pallet racks (this is often the case in areas of high seismic activity). This does not mean your pallet racks aren’t subject to standards, though. OSHA section 25(1)(b) states that you must “maintain equipment in good condition.” That means that bent rack frames or damaged beams can absolutely be fined if the inspector believes them to be unsafe. Furthermore, you must provide “instruction and safety information” to workers, per OHSA, section 25(2)(a).

Avoidable risk #3: Thinking a collapse can’t happen

pallet rack collapse in a warehouse

Companies have had rack that looked good and seemed fine collapse for seemingly no reason. Racks can collapse even when specified correctly for the loads and professionally installed. We cover some of the major factors in detail in this article. Some reasons may include:

  • Incorrect loading
  • Improper usage or loading equipment
  • Damaged loads or pallets
  • Sudden impacts or other forces
  • Changes in loads or loading methods
  • Changes in the rack system (see above)
  • Seismic or other environmental events

It’s easy to assume that because you’ve had the rack for a long time and that it’s always been fine that it will continue to function right, but inspections, maintenance and vigilance are relatively minor efforts that can prevent major problems down the line.

More: Falling Item Prevention for Pallet Racks

Avoidable risk #4: Assuming your safety processes are being followed

Even veteran forklift drivers may not follow your safety and operational processes. Frequently train and re-train everyone on safe load handling, storage and forklift procedures. Safety experts tell us that forklifts shouldn’t exceed 4-MPH in rack aisles or in any areas where pedestrians may be present. Busy people under pressure may take shortcuts and will drive too fast.

More: How to Make Rack Aisles Safer for Foot Traffic

Fast driving can be risky to the driver–any other workers present — and the rack itself. Speed means that they may not react quickly enough to avoid an obstacle and brush an upright. Pressure means they may commit the most common error — backing away from loading one bay and hitting the posts of the opposite side of the aisle. Good drivers usually don’t make this mistake, but the key word here is usually. Your processes should be set, trained and re-trained over time to be sure everyone knows your safety expectations.

Avoidable risk #5: Not guarding your rack system’s most vulnerable points

Pallet rack frame protectors
Racks are usually installed in tough environments and are accessed by forklifts or other heavy, mobile material handling equipment. The minor cost of guarding your rack from accidents is entirely justifiable.

  • Frame protectors — guards that are attached to the lower legs of the rack facing an aisle — should be included on every pallet rack in every warehouse. See our guide to column protectors for more information.
  • Upper bays with pallets, cartons or partial loads should be guarded with rack safety nets or panels that help prevent falls.
  • The ends of rows should be guarded with bollards or guard rails.

You can’t cover everything

When we discuss “avoidable” accidents, we realize that even companies who do all the right things can suffer an accident in the wrong situation. Like all preventative efforts, nothing is 100% effective. Rack collapses are rare and can be made even less common with inspection, guarding, training, qualified installation and proper design.

As always, this article should be considered general advice and does not replace the need for qualified engineers or safety professionals. 

More resources

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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