Debra Schug, Contributing Writer
In 2017, fatal workplace falls in the U.S. were at their highest level in the 26-year history of the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), accounting for 887 worker deaths, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This number alone points out the importance of safety precautions in material handling operations. This article will discuss the crucial role protective guarding plays in protecting assets while maintaining operational efficiency.
Designing Safety into a Facility
Protecting personnel, product and the facility itself needs to be first and foremost, so installing safety equipment should be done upfront—before an accident occurs. As someone who has been in the material handling business for over two decades, President of Mezzanine Safeti-Gates, Aaron Conway, is happy people are finally talking about safety proactively.
“When I was first visiting facilities, it was most often after an incident had taken place, and everyone was scrambling to get something in place quickly, even if it wasn’t the best solution,” he said. “These days, I hear these discussions during the design stage, as people proactively look to secure dangerous areas before they are even operational.”
Incorporating safety into the design before a facility is built allows the solution to fit seamlessly into the operations without getting in the way of the workflow. This way, the design is safer and more efficient. For instance, Conway said by extending a beam length an inch or two in a pick module to accommodate pallet drop gates for picking bays can make a big difference in lengthening the lifespan of a safety gate, as well as minimizing downtime for maintenance.
“You will often see these pallet drop areas on storage mezzanines, but also on production platforms in food or processing plants where ingredients are being blended,” Conway said. “This type of application often requires employees to work pallets near the ledge, emptying bags of ingredients into hoppers.”
Because facilities are trying to maximize their operational space, more designs are incorporating mezzanines, elevated work platforms or catwalks, which typically are secured by guardrails surrounding the perimeter of these upper levels. However, gaps in the guardrails are needed to transfer materials on pallets by lift trucks. These areas are the pallet drops, and Conway said they need to be secured with a dual-gate system to ensure a barrier is in place at all times to prevent accidents, even during material transferring.
“Often these elevated areas are constructed out of pallet rack in the form of rack-supported pick modules. These structures often extend multiple levels and include a variety of openings for picking or empty pallet/tote returns,” he said.
Conway advised that areas in the pick module with access to an exposed ledge should be secured with a dual-gate safety system as well, including the areas where empty pallets or totes are stacked and removed by lift trucks. Dual-gate safety systems are safety barriers designed for places where they are in the way of product flow. These systems have a secondary barrier in place to keep employees away while the primary barrier is removed, so product can be transferred.
“The best safety equipment is in place at all times instead of relying on an employee to remember and make an effort to position the safety gate in place,” Conway said.
When the gate at a ledge opens, a dual-gate safety system triggers a counterbalanced and connected gate behind the pallet to close. Thus, this system is designed to ensure there is a barrier in place at all times.
“When the ledge gate is up, the rear-side gate is down, preventing employees from accessing the exposed ledge and allowing the area to be replenished with material,” he said.
Protective Guarding on the Floor
“The best way to prevent injuries from lift truck traffic is to create defined lanes for pedestrian and truck traffic. By separating the two with a physical barrier, such as a guardrail, the likelihood of a collision is greatly reduced,” said Cory Thomas, Product Manager of Guarding Products for Wildeck, Inc.
Thomas said a good place to start for existing facilities that want to beef up their safety measures is to clearly define traffic areas. By decreasing distractions and obstacles in high-accident areas, employees are enabled to work more safely and efficiently.
Another location in the facility to address is the loading dock area. Thomas said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires operations to have certain safety equipment to protect both their structures and personnel in this area. He recommends companies hire a third-party consultant to ensure all applicable codes and regulations are implemented. These safety consultants can help quickly spot violations and educate companies on appropriate next step.
“Also, make sure that only necessary, trained personnel have access to the loading dock area,” said Thomas. “A vast majority of accidents in the loading dock area occur as a result of distracted drivers. Make their jobs easier by eliminating any unnecessary distractions. Indicator lights also provide a great visual cue for those tasked with maneuvering trucks.”
Safety and Automated Environments
With material handling operations employing higher levels of advanced automation and using high-speed robotics that need to be separated from human workers, safety devices play an important role in protecting both people and equipment. Conway said Mezzanine Safeti-Gates has been using many new technologies with the company’s power-operated safety gates.
“Controls and sensors integrated with power operation on our safety gates send AGVs a signal when the ledge gate is up, telling it to load material to the pallet drop area,” he said. “After the pallets are loaded, the sensors from the AGV send a signal to the safety gate to use the motor to close the ledge-side gate, so employees can work with the material.”
Additionally, a facility can connect the sensors on safety gates to the enterprise software in order to integrate them with the process flow. Radio frequency can also be used to connect safety gates and lift trucks.
“When the lift truck is ready to replenish the pallet drop area, the lift truck sends a signal to the safety gate to ensure the ledge-side gate is raised,” said Conway. “Since the area has been replenished, another signal is sent to the safety gate, telling it to close the ledge-side gate so employees can access the material.”
Another way new automated technology can help with safety procedures is to ensure protective guarding is used correctly with the incorporation of multi-sensory devices.
“For example, gates equipped with this technology are usually fitted with an alarm and flashing lights to indicate when the gate door has been left open,” said Thomas. “Technology of this kind grabs the attention of both the users and those in the nearby vicinity. The clear indication of a potential safety hazard prompts more than one person to act.”
With these new advances, protective guarding is well-positioned to keep employees and facilities safe, as the adoption of more automation continues to increase.
“As long as the safety devices can communicate with the other smart devices in the facility, there should be no lapses in safety in the future,” said Conway.