Fall Protection in Material Handling: Questions to Ask to Ensure Compliance

Aaron Conway, Contributor

An open top safety device allows the use of an overhead crane while keeping employees protected.

Many aspects of the material handling industry have changed in the last year with the COVID-19 virus impacting so many of us. Safety came roaring back into focus, with many facilities looking to create safe spaces for employees to work and even pivoting to change operations completely.

There was however, an unsettling and consistent year over year issue that remained in 2020: falls continued to rank high on OSHA’s top ten safety violation list. With an abundance of fall protection safety equipment available in the market today, it is imperative, and not difficult, for a facility manager to bring their plant up to code when it comes to fall protection.

There are two regulations for fall protection in the industry. The one associated with fines for violations is OSHA’s Walking-Working Surface Regulation 1910 Subpart D. This regulation requires a barrier be in place to guard any opening on platforms of four feet or higher where employees are working. The barrier must be in place when the opening is not in use and must have a top rail 42 inches off the deck, and an intermediate rail. Kick plates are required if small items can be kicked off the ledge where employees pass below. Additionally, the barrier must be able to withstand a 200-pound force applied in any direction except upward.

ANSI Standards, which were created by the industry, also have guidelines for fall protection. Standard MH 28.3-2009 in section 6.4.3 requires a barrier to be in place to secure pallet drop areas of three feet or more at all times, even while the area is in use for handling materials. This last part of the ANSI standard, even while in use, makes it clear that a dual-gate safety system is the best way to ensure compliance, and work to eliminate all risk of falls from heights in your facility.

There are many dual-gate safety systems to choose from, and the design largely is dependent on the applications in your facility. To ensure choosing the right fall protection equipment – and remember, you may have multiple applications for which different models are ideal – make sure you are well versed in the following points before making the final purchase decision. It will make a difference in the safety and well-being of your employees working at heights.

Where are my employees working at heights?

This seems like a no brainer, but odds are there is an unprotected spot in the facility, especially if you’ve made a pivot this year or recently changed your facility. Check places like the loading dock, pick modules, pallet drop areas, flow lanes, mezzanine walkways and elevated doorways to make sure there are no exposed ledges where employees are working.

What is the application?

Material handling facilities are a bit like snowflakes; they are rarely the same, even within the same parent company. Each pallet drop area is different, and it’s not just the material type and shape of the pallet loads — some areas may have very little space for employees to work around, others may be spacious. Other areas may require an overhead hoist to move the material, while some may be located next to a conveyor or in a rack system.

In each of these cases, a different safety device for fall protection may be needed. For example, in pick modules one of the main safety requirements is creating a fall protection barrier while employees on these elevated levels are picking items off of the pallets or stacking empty pallets to be removed. Dual-gate systems work very well in pick modules, especially when offered in a rack-supported design, which can save space by using the rack uprights to support the safety gate.

A tri-side gate closes to capture the pallet then moves up and out of the way to provide egress behind the area.

How is the material loaded onto the platform?

Forklift trucks and AGVs are often used to load and unload material into pallet drop areas. Safety equipment must be rugged enough to withstand the potential impact from a vehicle. In addition, impact plates may be needed to minimize the damage vehicle impact may have on the system.

If an overhead crane or hoist is used to load or unload material, a safety device with no overhead mechanics, such as an open top safety gate, allow for the device to work from above while keeping employees protected.

How and where do employees interact within the area and application?

Given the nature of material handling, any safety equipment must allow for employees to easily move within the space to pick or move the pallet loads. If there is any equipment in the area, take into account any motion that equipment makes in order for the safety gates to clear the motion without any issue.

Take worker movements into the account. Note how far from the ledge they work, and if they pick from one specific side of a pallet. If side access is necessary, a safety gate should be configured to allow access from both sides in a 90-degree angle. Check to see if they are moving the material from the drop spot to another place in the facility.

How much space is there on the platform, including material?

This is an important factor in selecting safety equipment. The space for the pallet drop area, load and area in which employees work with the material is important, as the safety barrier should not impede on production. Measure the space and be sure to note any special details, including height, depth and any other equipment such as conveyors, that may be involved in the application. Also note if your hazard is in a rack structure, as safety gates can be rack supported using the system’s uprights to save space.

These measurements can dictate the right safety equipment. For example, if depth on the platform is limited due to the location of a conveyor or a narrow aisle, then your best safety gate solution may be the Tri-Side gate. This safety system uses a gate that moves straight up and down at the ledge – never extending into the lift truck aisle, and a rear ‘u’-shaped gate that closes to capture the pallet then moves up and out of the way to provide egress behind the area.

Is power operation needed for touch-free and other hygienic procedures in place due to COVID-19?

A power-operated safety system can be ideal in material handling operations to make applications more touch free. There are many different ways that power and technology can be configured, from push button stations to remote control operations. Photo eyes, radio frequency and other technology can also be added to help increase safety and streamline the handling process with forklift trucks.

If you have additional questions or requirements, your safety equipment provider can help you determine the best fit for your applications. Remember that if a standard model will not work, it’s possible to get custom equipment that will work for your facility. WMHS

Aaron Conway is the President of Mezzanine Safeti-Gates, Inc. (www.mezzgate.com)