For warehouse operators and managers, worker safety is paramount. Not only does a safe workplace contribute to worker satisfaction, but it’s also crucial for minimizing costs related to worker’s compensation and other insurance coverage. Plus, injuries related to non-compliance with regulations could mean stiff penalties, not to mention damage to your reputation as a business.
Implementing best practices for warehouse worker safety doesn’t hinder productivity; in fact, it can actually make workers more productive by making them feel safer on the job. We’ve created this guide to highlight the information warehouse operators and managers need to know to promote workplace safety, including:
For more specific tips and action steps to create a safer warehouse work environment, download our interactive warehouse worker safety checklist. Read on for tips and actionable advice on creating a safer warehouse work environment.
Warehouse Industry and Injury Statistics
Screenshot via Bureau of Labor Statistics
Overall, the warehousing and storage industry has 1,031,200 workers as of May 2018 (seasonally adjusted). This figure includes approximately (figures below are from 2017):
- 152,800 industrial truck and trailer operators
- 271,990 laborers and freight, stock, and material movers (hand)
- 57,130 shipping, receiving, and traffic clerks
- 77,320 stock clerks and order fillers
- 10,180 transportation, storage, and distribution managers
According to a recent report from CBRE Group, Inc., Old Storage: Warehouse Modernization in Early Stages, the U.S. warehouse industry manages more than 9.1 billion square feet of warehouse space. While one billion of that space was built within the last decade, it accounts for just 11% of total warehouse square footage. Another billion square feet was built more than 50 years ago, and much of this space has clear heights of less than 20 feet, which is far below logistics tenant requirements.
Warehouses built in the years since 2008 are generally more spacious, according to CBRE – about three times larger than warehouses built prior to 2008, in fact – yet these newer buildings comprise just 4% of the total warehouse structures in the U.S. While older, less-optimally designed warehouses don’t solely account for warehouse workplace injuries, it’s certainly a contributing factor in some cases.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) gathers data on workplace injuries across a multitude of industries. According to the most recent data from BLS, the total recordable cases of illness and injury in the warehouse industry in 2016 per 100 workers, compared to the industry average of 3.2 cases out of 100 workers. That’s an illness or injury rate of 5% in the warehouse industry.
Screenshot via Bureau of Labor Statistics
Of those, 3.7/100 involved days away from work, job restrictions, or transfer (1.7/100 involving days away from work, 2.0/100 involving days of job transfer or restriction). The all-industry average for illness or injury involving days away from work, job restrictions, or transfer is just 1.7/100. Sixteen fatalities were reported in 2016. Injuries acquired in the warehouse setting tend to be more serious than those acquired on the job in other sectors. Per 2015 data from BLS, the median days off work for warehouse workers injured on the job is 20 days, more than double the median days out of work for injured workers in other sectors (8 days).
Screenshot via BLS.gov
Koke, Inc. also highlights some surprising statistics related to warehouse safety:
- Slips and falls account for 15% of accidental deaths, 25% of injury claims, and account for a startling 95 million work days lost annually.
- The top five locations and functions where warehouse injuries occur include docks, forklifts, conveyor belts, materials storage, and manual lifting and handling.
- The top three warehouse injuries include slips and falls, ergonomic-related injuries (those resulting from pushing, pulling, reaching, and lifting), and material handling/forklift accidents.
- Forklift accidents are the root of the injuries of nearly 20,000 warehouse workers each year. One-quarter of those accidents involve a forklift overturning, and sadly, 100 people lose their lives in forklift accidents each year.
Screenshot via BLS.gov
Workplace injuries have costs that extend far beyond the direct costs of paying for the injured worker’s treatment. According to Safety Management Group (which also offers a handy workplace injury cost calculator), indirect costs include “lost productivity, administrative time, insurance increases, OSHA involvement, morale, reputation risk, and media attention.”
Common Safety and Health Issues in the Warehouse
Some of the most common safety and health issues in the warehouse setting are obvious. Working with heavy equipment, for instance, always poses a risk of injury, particularly if the operator isn’t experienced or properly trained. Likewise, slips and falls are a safety risk in any workplace, particularly if the proper warning signs aren’t utilized to warn workers that the floor is slippery and thus poses a danger. According to Graphic Products, more than 12% of the major injuries reported in 2013 resulted from slips and falls.
Screenshot via BLS.gov
However, there are several less-obvious but also common safety and health issues in the warehouse:
- Exposure to harmful substances
- Heavy materials
According to a report from OSHA, the 10 OSHA standards most commonly included in citations include:
- Forklifts – Forklifts result in 95,000 injuries and 100 deaths annually.
- Hazard communication – Spills or exposure to hazardous chemicals is a common cause of injury, particularly when those chemicals are not properly labeled, often resulting in chemical burns.
- Electrical wiring methods – Sub-standard wiring or temporary wiring configurations can lead to electrocution.
- Electrical system design – Electrical systems that fall short of meeting OSHA design and maintenance standards are also a common cause of electrocution.
- Guarding floor and wall openings and holes – Without proper guarding of floor and wall openings and holes, slips, trips, and falls become more likely, and these accidents account for 15% of accidental deaths in the workplace.
- Exits – Exits must be clearly marked and exit paths unobstructed to prevent accidental injury or death in the event of a fire or other emergent event.
- Mechanical power transmission – Improper use of mechanical/power equipment and parts can lead to serious workplace injuries, including amputation.
- Respiratory protection – Warehouses that lack proper ventilation can lead to respiratory illness and injury.
- Lockout/tagout – Equipment can be inadvertently powered on or energized, leading to injury, without a lockout/tagout program in place.
- Portable fire extinguishers – Portable fire extinguishers play an important role in fire prevention and can help to avoid the thousands of injuries and deaths resulting from fires and explosions in the workplace annually.
Overexertion and repetitive stress injuries are also common injuries in the warehouse industry. Overexertion commonly includes injuries resulting from lifting, which risks injury to the shoulders (such as rotator cuff tears or labrum tears), neck, and back, as well as hernia.
Repetitive stress injuries result from highly repetitive tasks and include injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome, thumb injuries, ganglion cysts, and neck or shoulder pain, among others. Improper training, a failure to follow appropriate procedures, trying to maintain a certain pace to meet objectives, and insufficient staffing are contributors to both overexertion and repetitive stress injuries.
Warehouse workers may also suffer injury from being hit by falling objects. Unsafe working conditions, insufficient operations setup, carelessness, and human error are all factors that contribute to an increased risk of falling object injuries. Poorly stacked objects, particularly when not clearly marked as a hazard with signage, are more likely to topple, posing a risk of serious injury to your workers, such as concussions, herniated discs, and shoulder and back injuries.
Warehouse Safety Regulations and Standards
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets and enforces workplace safety standards across all industries in the United States. There are several OSHA standards of particular importance in the warehousing industry. Below is a list of important publications and resources that can help to guide you in ensuring a safe and compliant workplace:
- Materials Handling and Storage – A guide on materials handling and storage hazards, as well as safe materials handling practices.
- Control of Hazardous Energy (Lockout/Tagout) – A booklet outlining OSHA’s standards for controlling hazardous energy during service or maintenance activities on equipment or machinery.
- Lockout/Tagout – An interactive training program on lockout/tagout procedures.
- Controlling Electrical Hazards – An overview of safe electrical practices in the workplace.
- Fire Safety – OSHA’s index on workplace fire safety, including links to standards, hazards and potential solutions, and other resources.
- Evacuation Plans and Procedures – A tool to guide you in creating an emergency action plan in compliance with OSHA’s emergency standards.
- Protecting Young Workers: Prohibition Against Young Workers Operating Forklifts – This is not a standard or regulation, but a safety bulletin offering recommendations and general safety guidelines related to younger workers and forklift operation.
- Hazard Communication – OSHA’s HazCom index, which includes links to an abundance of resources including information on safety data sheets (SDS), labeling, pictograms, standards, and more.
- NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards – A helpful guide from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) on chemical hazards.
- Ergonomics – OSHA’s index on ergonomics, which includes links to resources on identifying hazards, solutions for controlling hazards, training and assistance, and more.
- Grocery Warehousing: Ergonomics – A quick reference on ergonomics for the grocery warehousing sector.
- Respiratory Protection – A helpful tool for selecting the appropriate respirator.
- Eye and Face Protection – Another e-tool to help you determine if your workers are wearing the proper protective equipment.
- Fall Protection – An index of standards and recommendations for non-construction workplaces pertaining to fall prevention, such as OSHA Standard 1910, Subpart D – Walking-Working Surfaces, which includes standards related to mezzanines and raised platforms. OSHA sets standards on the use of guardrails and safety rails to reduce the risk of falls, as well.
In addition to the federal OSHA guidelines, 26 states, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands have developed OSHA-approved state plans on workplace safety. Twenty-one states and one U.S. territory have plans that cover both private and state and local government workplaces, while the remaining five states and one U.S. territory have plans that cover only state and local government workers.
The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) also sets forth standards and requirements of relevance to the warehouse industry. For instance, ANSI MH16.1: 2012-Specification for the Design, Testing and Utilization of Industrial Steel Storage Racks is a voluntary standard for industrial pallet rack systems (read the full-text standard here). ANSI also offers guidance and recommendations, such as this article on the importance of safety ladders in industrial warehouses.
Other industry entities develop voluntary standards that help to promote safety in the workplace. These standards are often highly specific, pertaining to a certain type of safety equipment or machinery. For example, the American Ladder Institute (ALI) issues voluntary consensus standards on ladder safety.
There are hundreds of standards relevant to warehouse operations and warehouse safety. It’s up to warehouse operators to understand the applicable standards and take the necessary steps to ensure compliance.
Warehouse Safety Principles
Maintaining a safe workplace in the warehouse industry is an ongoing effort. Follow these best practices and core warehouse safety principles to ensure a safe working environment.
- Establish a culture of safety. Every executive, manager, and warehouse floor worker should be well-informed of and invested in their role in maintaining a safe work environment.
- Establish a safety committee. Establishing a safety committee with representatives from all roles and departments gives your team a sense of ownership in a safe work environment. A safety committee can serve to encourage open lines of communication and empower workers to bring up potential safety concerns.
- Set minimums, but incentivize workers to make safety a priority. Set minimum safety standards and post clearly visible safety instructions in the vicinity of all equipment. Incentivize warehouse floor workers, office staff, and management to reduce and eliminate potential workplace hazards. Recognize and reward safe behaviors, as well as workers who recognize a potential safety risk and bring it to management’s attention.
- Implement comprehensive, ongoing training programs for workers. However, keep in mind that training alone is not sufficient to prevent accidents and injuries in the warehouse.
- Establish general housekeeping policies and procedures. Many warehouse injuries can be prevented by keeping up with general housekeeping tasks and common-sense best practices, such as keeping floors clear of clutter and other hazards (wires, loose flooring), immediately cleaning all spills in accordance with safety procedures, maintaining an open path to emergency exits, and so on.
- Develop an Accident Prevention Plan to reduce workplace injuries. OSHA offers guidance on developing an effective Accident Prevention Plan based on four core pillars: management commitment and worker involvement, worksite analysis, hazard prevention and control, and training for workers, supervisors, and managers.
- Regularly audit your processes and make modifications with ergonomics and safety in mind. Don’t fall into the, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” mentality. In the warehouse setting, there’s always room for improvement, particularly when it comes to ergonomics. You can’t fix ergonomics issues if you’re not aware that they exist. By failing to look for potential problems, you’re putting your workers’ health and safety on the line.
- Ensure that everyone is trained on safe material handling equipment operating procedures. Forklifts are linked to many warehouse accidents each year. Even workers who don’t operate equipment should be aware of safety practices related to material handling equipment. Additionally, don’t neglect regular preventive maintenance to keep your equipment in safe working order.
- Obtain fire inspections, and have an evacuation plan for fires and other hazardous events. All workers should know the exit routes throughout the facility. Fire inspections can ensure that your warehouse has the proper aisle widths, building access, and adequate sprinkler system coverage to help mitigate damages and prevent injuries.
- Comply with hazardous materials guidelines. MSDS should be readily available for all hazardous materials handled by the warehouse. Usage, storage requirements, and first aid instructions should be within easy access in all areas where hazardous materials are stored or handled.
- Conduct regular safety sweeps. Perform daily, weekly, or monthly sweeping safety audits internally to evaluate infrastructure and identify hazards, such as obstructed emergency exit paths or improperly labeled hazardous materials. What’s the status of your safety equipment? Are sprinklers obstructed by boxes? Have your fire extinguishers been inspected recently? Are your workers wearing safe lifting belts, and do they fit properly? Conduct a regular sweep to ensure that your warehouse is well-equipped for safety and that proper safety procedures are being followed.
Maintaining a safe workplace is paramount for the modern warehouse. Cultivating a safe work environment not only helps to maintain compliance, but it also promotes worker satisfaction and reduces costs associated with on-the-job injury. Download our interactive warehouse worker safety checklist for specific action steps you can take to create a safer workplace.
Additional Resources on Warehouse Worker Safety
For more information on warehouse worker safety, including resources and tools to develop inspection checklists and procedures, accident prevention plans, and more, visit the following resources: