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Staying Safe with Sortation Equipment

Contributed by: MHI’s Conveyors & Sortation Systems (CSS) Industry Group

Sortation equipment can provide many benefits — here’s how to implement it safely.

Safety and ergonomics must be prioritized when selecting, implementing, and running sortation equipment. © Eliska –

One of the biggest game changers to product flow in a warehouse can be an advanced sortation system. They automatically identify and divert products to the appropriate zones throughout a facility. With a modern sortation system, you can better control product flow, increase throughput, decrease cycle times and reduce the costs that go along with the sortation process. All told, you can achieve a rapid return on investment when you consider all the benefits of sortation systems.

Still, any equipment with parts moving at high speed can pose a safety risk to the employees who work with and around it. Sortation equipment is no exception here, but there are important considerations and safeguards you can put in place to improve the safety equation. It’s all about finding the right balance between speed/efficiency, and isolation of the equipment from the adjacent workforce.

“Sortation systems involve a lot of high-speed equipment that your maintenance staff will need access to,” explains Brad Perry, director of sales for Fives Intralogistics Corporation. “So, you need to look for solutions that provide safety and accessibility built-in.”

Safety goes beyond acute injury risk, too, and into ergonomics. This is where understanding machine safety standards is important. “The United States manages this differently than the European Union,” says Chris Woller, safety product manager at Beckhoff Automation. “In Europe, the onus falls on the manufacturer. In the U.S., however, it falls on the employer.”

For these reasons, it’s essential that you keep safety and ergonomics front and center when selecting, implementing and running sortation equipment in your facility.

Know the guidelines

There are numerous steps you can take to ensure both compliance with standards, and that your employees stay safe. While the standards are something of an alphabet soup, some of the standards to familiarize yourself with such as the ASME B20.1 safety standard for conveyors and related equipment and ANSI B11 technical standards for machines.

ANSI B11.TR1 specifically, is an excellent resource for ergonomic guidelines for design, installation and use. Both federal and state OSHA agencies use these standards to measure facilities when making inspections. The standards also extend to lawsuits, should there be an accident.

“You should be familiar with the standards,” says Woller. “If you’re looking to comply and focus on safety, these standards will get you a long way there.” As Woller reminds, “OSHA is good at showing up unannounced,” so it’s worth your while to make safety a priority.

Another helpful site for safety recommendations, according to Perry, is the Conveyor Equipment Manufacturer’s Association website:
.  The group has developed a series of standardized safety labels and literature that centers on typical hazards associated with conveying equipment. The group is focused on fine-tuning the standards, and encourages original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to participate in the organization’s conversation around safety, and share recommendations with the group.

Conduct a risk assessment

Your overall approach to safety with conveyor equipment should involve a thorough risk assessment. The team performing the assessment should include an in-house or third-party safety expert, engineers, operators and your maintenance team.

“This risk assessment should also include ergonomics,” says Woller. “It’s not just about crawling around in the machines to maintain them, but how to operate them safely over time without incurring lasting damage to your body.”

Also, pay attention to commonly overlooked issues with the equipment, such as chutes. “If you’ve got a heavy item rushing down a chute, it can be a hazard to the employees at the bottom,” says Perry. “In those cases, you’d want to slow down the speed of the products that are sliding down, while also keeping your line moving.”

Techniques to protect employees can include adding friction to the surface of the chute, using powered conveyors to control speeds, or combining a slide and a powered conveyor. It all adds up to that fine balance of optimizing the design while maintaining a safe design for the workers.

Improve safety features and training

Once your team has performed a risk assessment, potential solutions to improve user safety and ergonomics include a wide variety of options, ranging from operator station placement and layout to where emergency stop buttons are located. “You can also add features like long-range photo eyes and light curtains, so that if a hand gets too close to the moving equipment, it will immediately shut down,” says Perry.

Don’t overlook the importance of training in the safety equation, either. This training should focus on maintenance — how to keep the components running smoothly — as well as factors like staying out of gated and guarded areas. Review the equipment and its safety features often so that the information remains front and center for your staff.

The good news, says Perry, is that there’s usually a solution for any safety hazard in and around conveyor equipment. “If you’re concerned about a certain scenario, ask your OEM,” he adds. “The odds are it’s something they’ve seen before.” WMHS

The Material Handling Institute’s (MHI) Conveyors & Sortation Systems (CSS) Industry Group is advancing the material handling industry through the optimal use of conveyors and sortation systems for the benefit of its members and their end users. Learn more at

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