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6 Protective Guarding Best Practices for Warehouses and Distribution Centers

By Devin Partida

Protective guarding — or machine guarding — involves using specific measures to reduce worker injuries caused by hazardous parts, functions or processes. That may include installing physical barriers such as gates, cages or nets. Keeping employees safe could also mean deploying presence-sensing technology or ensuring the operator remains a sufficient distance away from an active machine.

Here are six best practices to follow when applying protective guarding to warehouses and distribution centers.

1. Ensure the Guarding Does Not Create a New Hazard

Aspects like unfinished surfaces or parts of a guard that obstruct an operator’s view may cause unintended consequences that bring risks of their own. People who install or maintain the guard must check that it’s free from sharp edges and does not feature any unfinished surfaces that could cause lacerations.

Relatedly, any protective guarding must not interfere with a machine’s operation. If it does, people may ignore or disable it, rendering the safety measures useless. Getting regular employee feedback can help facility managers verify that it works as it should and that machine operators understand its purpose.

2. Provide Manual Tools to Keep Employees’ Hands Safe

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides general guarding standards, as well as some specific measures to take in particular industries. One of them discusses how the point of guarding is to keep any body part out of the danger zone during machine operation.

That also means employers may need to provide manual tools for people to use when placing or removing materials from dangerous parts of a machine. Those don’t replace other protective guarding measures but should supplement them.

3. Investigate How to Minimize Noise Damage

Some machines used in warehouses and distribution centers emit loud noises over prolonged periods while operating. In such cases, it’s necessary to install guarding to prevent hearing loss. Human ears can only tolerate 15 minutes of 100-decibel noise before suffering damage.

Using sound-dampening curtains is one commonly used option, particularly because they create moveable barriers that can go directly around a loud machine. It’s also necessary to warn people before they approach an area of a facility featuring one or more loud pieces of equipment. For example, installing warning signs is a good way to remind passersby to put in their earplugs.

4. Never Assume Machinery Is Safe on Arrival

Today’s warehouses and distribution centers typically have numerous pieces of equipment that accelerate and improve operations. Many are robots that operate faster than a human could alone. Some of them work near people, but not without guarding measures in place.

For example, Amazon has its workers wear vests so mobile robots can detect and steer around them. Brad Porter, the company’s vice president of robots, explained, “All of our robotic systems employ multiple safety systems, ranging from training materials to physical barriers to entry to process controls to on-board.”

Many machines have built-in safety features. However, it’s up to the people who implement them at a facility to check that they all work as expected and assess whether it’s necessary or advisable to install other guarding devices to prevent injuries.

5. Consider Having Outside Parties Perform a Risk Assessment

It’s often advantageous to get a fresh perspective about how well a company adheres to protective guarding recommendations. One way to do that is to have an outside party come in to do a thorough inspection. They’ll use a points system to check whether a machine includes certain safety measures.

For example, if the equipment has point-of-operation guarding, that’s worth 40 points. Drop-out protection earns five points. Together, the areas examined add up to 100. Looking at the numerical figure at the end of the check helps facility managers see where weak points exist and address them.

6. Implement Guardrails to Keep Heavy Machinery in Intended Areas

Most profitable distribution centers and warehouses are perpetually busy places full of foot and vehicular traffic. Thus, a crucial part of protective guarding involves ensuring unaware people never stray into the path of heavy machinery.

Sometimes it happens by accident, though. For example, if a forklift operator does not execute a tight turn carefully, the wheels or other parts may enter a designated safe zone.

Thoughtfully placed guardrails stop those incidents by creating physical barriers, which decreases the risks of collisions or similar accidents. These structures also often feature bright colors to draw people’s attention to the boundaries in their surroundings.

A Thorough Approach Keeps People Safe

Distribution centers and warehouses are typically most productive when employees have few or no injuries. No single proactive measure will protect against all mishaps. However, these six protective guarding best practices will help managers make smart, applicable choices when deciding how to increase safety around machines. This will lead to a safe and productive working environment.

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