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Ergonomics and Pallet Handling

Ways to ergonomically load, unload, transport and use pallets in your warehouse

Pallet Handling Inquiry

Workers with various loaded pallets on a warehouse dock staging area

Palletized loads are one of the most common—and most difficult—areas of concern for ergonomic warehouse operations. In an era of labor shortages and increased safety concerns, dealing with pallets and palletized loads should be a higher-priority target for warehouse operations.

Companies are investing in ergonomics because it makes good sense from a number of angles: reduced workers’ compensation and injury rates, increased productivity and less labor dependence. Ergonomic issues bear directly on productivity, since good ergonomics tends to also increase speed and accuracy. The right solutions can address all of these factors.

“Poor ergonomics tends to align with bad production processes,” said Donald Prater, Cisco-Eagle’s Director of Safety Automation. “When we see one, we tend to see the other, they’re so closely related. Solutions that target one tend to target the other.”

What’s the main goal of ergonomic pallet processes?

A palletized load poses multiple ergonomic challenges. Best practices allow tasks to adapt to workers, rather than workers to tasks.

  • Pallets are heavy; their load components can also be heavy.
  • Pallets are typically stacked, meaning that their loads sit atop each other. The upper cartons, the middle cartons and the lower cartons sit in different ergonomic reach zones.
  • Pallets require workers to access them from multiple sides and angles.
  • Pallets must be moved through their various processes in the warehouse from area to area, and accessed at different times by different people.

The best ideas reduce the need for workers to adjust their body positions to deal with the palletized loads. There are a number of mechanical and automated solutions that can help with that initiative and help reduce musculoskeletal stresses while also making the process faster and easier. Because pallets must be handled in most every industrial facility throughout the receiving, putaway, stocking, processing and shipping processes, finding ways to handle them better is critical.

Manual palletizing, depalletizing and load handling

By definition, the act of removing loads from or adding loads to a pallet will be an ergonomic challenge. Higher speed, automated palletizing systems and robotics relieve this burden, but those aren’t viable for every operation or application. Point-of-use solutions for manual or semi-automated pallet handling can be used to reduce ergonomic stress.

The ideal system positions workers for optimal ergonomics, but allows them to work efficiently. This means the load should be at about 30″ high when it’s accessed (30″ is the average distance between the ground and their knuckles). If workers must reach higher or stoop lower to access the load, musculoskeletal stress will follow, particularly if they are stooped to handle, lift or manipulate something heavy.

A mixture of various equipment and technologies provides better ergonomics. Lift tables, cranes, balancers and rotators all help adjust the load to the worker, rather than the worker’s body to the load. The exact type or blend of these concepts depends on the operation, load and other environmental factors

Use pallet positioners to reduce bending, strains and movement while building or breaking down pallets

Pallet positioners are a blend of productivity and ergonomic equipment that can elevate or lower pallets to the optimal ergonomic height for workers to access the load. They also rotate to present the load without requiring warehouse workers to walk around, which helps make the process faster. They present product at optimal heights and places for ergonomic access. They’re beefy enough to handle most pallet loads and adjust height automatically to make the job of either building or breaking down pallets easier.

Read more: How to Restack Pallets Safer, Faster

Use pallet inverters to deal with repalletizing or reaching lower level pallets

When you need to transfer a full palletized load from one pallet to another without restacking anything, pallet inverters are both faster and more ergonomic. This lets you deal with broken pallets without entirely unloading and then reloading the contents. You can also change pallets from one type to another quickly and without the extra work of unloading/reloading. If you need access to part of the load that is on or near the bottom layer, an inverter is ideal.

Use vacuum lifters to move loads between pallets, conveyors and other areas

Vacuum lifting systems work with a variety of load types and lifting systems to help workers access loads without bending, stooping or carrying heavy weights. You can move products to or from pallets, from conveyors, the floor, assembly stations and elsewhere.  These lifting systems improve productivity and throughput by allowing consistent product handling speeds.

Pallet transportation ergonomics

Pallet transport tends to be a fairly ergonomic process because pallets tend to be moved on forklifts, by pallet jacks or by other methods. If forklifts are removing them from truck trailers to staging or rack storage, the ergonomic challenges are usually nonexistent. However, in some cases, manual handling is needed. This may involve facilities that lack forklifts, where the pallet must be moved with either pallet jacks or stackers that rely entirely or partially on people.

Stackers and pallet transport

Electric stacker accessing pallets in a rack system

Walk-behind stackers remove the burden of moving pallets with muscle power and generally are an ergonomic transport method that allows you to move pallets around a warehouse. Most models can raise or lower pallets to allow cartons or other loads to be accessed from more ergonomic heights.

Stackers can be powered (which uses motor power to move loads) or manual, which allows manual load pushing. Manual stackers are fine for lighter weight loads, and tend to have relatively lower capacities (1,000 pounds is standard). Power stackers allow up to 3,000 pounds, but propel the load so that workers don’t have to push it.

For pallet jacks, load assessment is critical

Workers pushing a palletized load using a pallet jack in an industrial warehouse

Above: workers moving a loaded pallet with a pallet jack. Pulling pallet jacks is not recommended since it puts a worker in front of a heavy, moving load

If the load is too heavy—a push force of greater than fifty pounds according to OSHA—it should be split and transported separately for safe and ergonomic transport. You can also specify powered pallet jacks for operations where heavy loads are the norm. Pushing is more ergonomic than pulling because pushing uses the operator’s body weight to put pressure on the load. There is also the risk of the load and jack striking the worker if a heavy pallet is moving behind them and is out of control.

Remember the simple push test: if using a pallet jack causes the operator to strain to move the load, the load is too heavy and could result in muscular stresses or injuries

Pallet dollies and transport

Pallet dollies are used to manually transport pallets. Full pallets can be loaded on forklifts to allow workers to push and maneuver pallets through a facility. You can leave a dolly beneath a rack with a loaded pallet to improve ergonomics for reaching cartons beneath a rack beam, where bending and stress often occurs from floor-level picking. For transport, dollies with enlarged middle rollers create a center tilt dynamic that allows easier turning action. These work for loads of 3,000 pounds or less. The OSHA recommendation of no more than fifty pounds of push force should be applied for these dollies as it is for pallet jacks.

Read more: How to Manually Pick Heavy & Bulky Items from Pallet Rack Aisles

Pallet conveyors and heavy loads

Pallet conveyor with a powered turntable that allows the pallet to be rotated on the conveyor line
Pallet conveyors reduce manual pallet handling and help address other ergonomic issues associated with palletizing and depalletizing.

  • Power conveyors remove transport burden from workers, but still can impact them due to the way workers may interact with pallets on the conveyor line. If your conveyor is used in a progressive assembly or stacking operation, make sure workers who need to add to or pick from the pallet can reach it safely and comfortably.
  • Gravity conveyors can significantly reduce the stresses of moving heavy pallets when correctly specified. Very heavy pallets can be manually pushed on gravity conveyors, if the conveyor is correctly designed. Pallet conveyors can also be fitted with turntables that allow rotation along a line to let people access all sides faster and with less physical movement and stress.

To see more about workers and conveyors, read How to Use Conveyors to Increase Warehouse Ergonomics

The “win/win” of safer pallet handling

Pallet handling, stacking, destacking, transport and manipulation improvements require investment, but the ROI on that investment is apparent and relatively fast. It’s one of those areas where improved safety aligns almost entirely with higher productivity because these solutions tend to improve both. Workers who are less stressed are fresher, sharper and make fewer mistakes while they work faster and safer. It’s pretty simple: when the job is easier, people are faster. When the work is less physically taxing, they make fewer mistakes.

What about automation? No doubt, automated solutions can increase ergonomics by reducing or removing workers from rote, dangerous, repetitive tasks. We’ll cover that in a future post.

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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