Fall Protection and the Digital Warehouse

Aaron Conway, Contributor 

If you look around, you may notice that almost everything has sped upcustomers expect fast delivery of any product—even sameday delivery will soon be the norm. So, operations need to be efficient as well as fast, in order to meet demand.  

Supply chain processes, including material handling, are becoming increasingly digitized in order to capture data that can provide insight into how to make operations most effective. Technologies are used throughout a material handling facility today, even in places where you may not expect to find them. 

What many people don’t realize is that safety equipment used within supply chains is also becoming available online. Fall protection equipment is often mistaken as old-school, but that is certainly not the case; the industry is keeping up extremely well. Safety systems can capture data to make supply chain operations more efficient. 

There are ways that safety systems in your facilities can add value beyond fall protection, but fall protection throughout the facility should be a top priority whether technology is used in the system or not. 

Safety and Fall Protection 

Let’s start by looking at fall protection. Safety systems or barriers for fall protection are mandated by OSHA on any working surface 48in or higher, while ANSI standards require fall protection at 36in. In order to comply with either standard, having the equipment in place is necessary to keep your employees safe. 

Almost a quarter of all industrial accidents take place at the loading dock. This area is a potential fall hazard, because moving material swiftly is a top priority, making it a high-activity area. It can be extremely busy with products being moved by trucks, lifts and people. Protective guarding is needed at the loading dock to make sure a barrier is in place at the ledge, when there is not a truck loading or unloading material. Having a barrier that can close is a good first step, but this gate should close automatically. The responsibility to close the barrier is often left to an employee, who may be tired and accidentally forget to close the barrier or just leave it open, because they know another truck will be there very soon. It happens more often than you would think. So, the most effective type of loading dock gates operate automatically, closing when the truck drives away. It will also include safety features, such as not permitting the gate to open if a truck is not present.  

Gated Communities 

Inside the facility, guardrail and other fall protection barriers may be needed in various places; make sure to look at all of the elevated surfaces where employees may be working. In applications that feature pallet drop areas—whether on a ledge, in a pick module, doorway or other locationthe best way to secure the area and provide fall protection is with a dual-gate system, of which there are many different designs and models to fit virtually any application.  

A dual-gate system is configured so one gate is always closed; when the ledge side gate is open, material can be loaded into the pallet drop area, while the rear gate is closed to secure the area. When the ledge side gate is closed, the rear gate is open, so employees can pick material from the pallets safely without being exposed to potential falls from the ledge. These systems have been largely manually operated in the past, but that trend is changing fairly quickly. 

With the need to speed operations and improve efficiencies, safety gates and other fall protection equipment are increasingly power operated. Adding power and motors is often the first step in getting fall protection equipment online with the rest of the facility. A key point to keep in mind when looking to add power operations to a safety gate or other protective guarding is to select a commercial motor that works for your environment. You must ensure it has enough horsepower to match the expected use of the safety gate. If your application is very repetitive, you’ll want to make sure it can provide speed, as well.  

Size and placement of the motors can also be an issue, so it’s important to discuss these issues before choosing a motor. Where is the application located? Is it in a climate-controlled environment that is extremely hot or cold? Is there a need for rinsing the environment? Ensure the motor that you use is able to operate within any conditions that may be present in the facility. Motors are available in water- and explosion-proof options, and numerous controls, such as flashing lights and caution alarms, can be added. The best method is to have the fabricator of the safety gate design the motor into the gate system to ensure the power motor integrates with the safety gate. 

Smart Safety 

Once you begin power operating safety gate systems or other protective guarding solutions, there are many ways you can add technology, which can integrate to your operational software. This will provide a wealth of data that can be used to inform operations and overall business decisions. With power operation and technology, safety systems can become smarter, pulling valuable data that can help to inform decisions about operational efficiency, staffing needs and inventory.  

Radio frequency is often used to allow the safety gates to communicate with wireless radio frequencies on 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. When 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. 

Fall protection equipment can also be programmed to communicate with overhead or climate doors within the facility or at the loading dock. This is key for facility operations that need to maintain a constant temperature; when the material has been moved, the safety system can then send a signal to the doors to automatically close. 

Safety and fall protection systems can also communicate with AGVs, cobots and packaging robots. These automated systems can be programmed to stay out of employee work zones. If the systems are working in populated areas, signals (like those used in forklift applications) can be sent AGVS and robots, communicating that it is safe to move into a new area.  

Technology with fall protection equipment is not just used for communicating with other systems. Data from the sensors, cameras and radio frequency can be used to track how often a pallet drop area is loaded, even down to the precise times. It can also measure how long it takes for the fork truck to unload the material; how many pallets were stacked on top of each other; and the movement of the material to a different area in the facility. Armed with this information, insights into operational inefficiencies can be found. 

In addition, that data can be used to determine staffing needs; this is key, as minimum wage is rising, and the demand for skilled workers is still very high. If data shows the operations slow or there is a large influx of material or business, it may mean that more labor is required to speed product through the facility or find applications that may need to be altered to provide better outcomes.  

This is only the beginning of the age of the digital warehouse. Equipment and operations will continue to change with the rise of artificial intelligence, and these changes can help to improve operations. But, do not forget that regardless of the technology, the need for fall protection will always be essential in guarding your business’s important assets – your employees.  

Aaron Conway is President of Mezzanine Safeti-Gates, Inc., which can be found at https://www.MezzGate.com.