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What You Should Know About ASRS Safety

This modern-day equipment brings with it modern-day safety protections.

Contributed by: MHI’s AS/RS Industry Group

There is no question that automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) have been one of the most considerable enhancements to the material handling world over the past decade. They can improve the speed of your operations, increasing throughput while improving consistency in your operations. They also remove some of the human pieces of the puzzle, which is critical during an unprecedented labor shortage.

ASRS is also a safe technology, in many ways enhancing the human safety element of material handling. That said, it is still sophisticated material handling equipment that requires vigilance by the operators.

Before adding an ASRS to your operation, it’s essential to understand all the critical safety elements, both positive and negative.

Like all moving equipment, an ASRS has factors that can make it potentially dangerous. Training can help personnel avoid hazards. Image courtesy of SencorpWhite.

The safety pros of ASRS

One of the best features of an ASRS on the human safety side of the equation is that it is very ergonomically friendly, says David Phillips, marketing manager at Hanel Storage Systems. “OSHA talks a lot about the ‘golden zone’ of movement when it comes to the workplace,” he says. “In general, that is movement that takes place within the shoulder to waist region.”

When applied to warehousing, this means operating mid-level with regard to material handling. Some examples include avoiding bending down to pick up products off the bottom shelves, and/or staying away from lifting loads overhead to put or pick them off shelves. These movements require too much bending, lifting and reaching in ways that can make employees susceptible to injury, especially when practiced repeatedly.

An ASRS will take over for humans, keeping them safe from repetitive use and acute injuries. “When an employee gets hurt from repeating these movements over and over again, they often need to miss work,” says Phillips. “That can get costly for the employer.”

The advantage of an ASRS in these situations, says Dustin Walker, executive account manager at SencorpWhite Systems, is that you bring products to the employees, not the other way around. “Any time you can accomplish that, you’ll have a huge benefit,” Walker explains. “The employee needs to do less bending and reaching, less walking around the warehouse floor, and can be far more productive.”

When your facility includes ladders and mezzanines, an ASRS can make a big difference in this regard. “We always instruct to lift with legs, not the back, but it’s easy for employees to forget about that,” says Phillips. “So, they might pick up heavy items from the lower shelves and try to carry or lift them up to higher levels. This is especially dangerous if you’re carrying items up to a mezzanine.”

Again, ASRS can take over here, relieving workers of potentially injury-inducing movement. Current and potential employees appreciate the ease of operation with ASRS involvement, aiding in recruitment and retention.

Several safety features on an ASRS are incorporated into the design. “There are multiple redundant safety features,” says Walker. “People and equipment shouldn’t be moving in the same space, so these features prevent that.”

On older ASRS units, this usually looked like photo eyes, much like what you find on your garage door opener at home. “If someone or something crosses over the light beam, the ASRS will stop working,” Walker explains. “This also protected products from damage as well.”

On more recent versions of ASRS, the safety feature is usually a light curtain. This sits at the access point to an ASRS, and whatever it is bringing the product to the employee—whether an extractor, a robot, or a rotating carousel—is behind the curtain. If a body part crosses it, the machine shuts down, preventing the moving human/machine interaction.

Safety around an ASRS also involves training. “Whenever we install an ASRS, we hold a training session with the staff on the day of commissioning,” says Walker. “And there is always an emergency stop button within reach, so we make sure staff understands where that is and how to use it.”

Hazards to watch for

All moving equipment, like an ASRS, has factors that can make it potentially dangerous despite safety features. By training personnel on what to avoid, however, these are easily avoided.

The product’s packaging is the most significant potential hazard when operating an ASRS. Situations to avoid include instability—if packages are not stacked uniformly and cause instability of the loads within the ASRS, they can unbalance the load and cause an unsafe toppling. Pallets are also significant—improper loading can cause falling pallets, which can be dangerous to workers and the equipment. Breakages and/or loose nails also can wreak havoc in an ASRS, setting up for potentially hazardous working conditions.

In order to avoid any of these potentially dangerous scenarios, well-trained and attentive employees are your best defense with an ASRS. “In the end, an ASRS is going to be a far safer solution than manual handling,” says Phillips. “The equipment is going to guide employees in safe use and save a company money in the long run.” WMHS

MHI’s AS/RS Industry Group is comprised of leading suppliers of automated storage/retrieval systems. They supply systems worldwide and in virtually every major manufacturing and distribution sector. For information about ROI, case studies and the Automation Blog, visit www.mhi.org/as-rs.

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