Fall Protection in the Automated Warehouse
By: Aaron Conway, Contributor
Warehouses, distribution centers and material handling facilities are increasingly becoming a workplace for automated machines. Many factors attribute to this rise; demand for goods is very strong, and speed of delivery is of utmost importance to all end users. At the same time, there is a labor crunch with a shortage of labor in the industry. Another advantage to automation is that a robotic or mechanical workforce can often be controlled from WMS systems, which can capture data to ensure the application stays on schedule.
Even with the robotic workforce, there will always be a need for employees, as they are crucial to each and every business. Often, when a warehouse or distribution center utilizes robots or AGVs, the machines work on lower levels and employees work on the elevated platforms within pick modules or around elevated pallet drop areas.
OSHA’s Walking-Working Surface Regulation 1910 Subpart D requires protective guarding to be in place around any opening on platforms elevated four feet or higher on which an employee is working. The barrier must be in place when the opening is not in use for handling materials.
Keeping safety and regulations in mind, some applications feature workers and robots or AGVs working successfully within the same environment. Highlighted are a few examples of how safety gates for fall protection are helping to not only protect employees, but also work with the automated systems in facilities today.
The Pros of Using Safety Gates
In one distribution center, a Roly safety gate was installed to protect employees working around elevated pallet flow lanes were equipped with power operation and sensors to communicate with the facility’s Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV). The safety gate system communicated to the AGV that the rear side gate at the end of the lane was closed while the ledge-side gate was open, allowing the vehicle to load the pallets into the lane while a barrier was in place preventing the employee on the platform from entering the area while it was being replenished. When the pallets are unloaded, the AGV can communicate with the gate system to automatically close the ledge-side gate, allowing the employee to access the lane while maintaining a safe environment around the ledge area. After six months of using this safety gate system, the facility was determined that the pace of productivity had quickened while keeping employees safe.
In another customer’s material handling facility, employees and automated vehicles work together on the same level, often in close proximity of each other and an elevated overhead door. The facility manager wanted to ensure that not only would employees not be exposed to an unprotected ledge when the door was open, but also be safe from vehicle traffic. The solution was a Roly safety gate with power operation, photo eyes and sensors posted on the gate that communicated with the vehicle and overhead door. When the overhead door opens, it sends a signal sensor on the safety gate to close the ledge side gate near the door, providing a barrier for employees working in the area. When the worker is detected on the platform by the photo eyes, the gate sends a signal to the AGV in the area telling it to stop moving. When the worker is finished on the platform, they can move away, and remotely control the safety gate to open rear-side gate and let the AGV know it can begin moving again.
Software integration with safety gates can help track product and processes in operations. For example, a software system could track the materials that a AGV moves to each pallet drop area. By using power operation, the safety gate power station can communicate with the facility’s system to record how often the safety gates are operated. The integration can track the cycles of the safety gate to determine the material that has been delivered by the AGV and automatically send it a signal indicating which area needs to be replenished.
Perhaps you have a safety gate system that is manually operated; manual operation continues to be a very safe choice for gate operation, but if you would like to add power operation or other sensors to your existing safety systems, speak with your manufacturing representative, as retrofitting these tools is often a very easy option.
Automation can help make your material handling facility or warehouse much more efficient, and streamline applications. Don’t forget about keeping the employees working with and around the automated vehicles safe while they are on the job.
Aaron Conway is President of Mezzanine Safeti-Gates, Inc., a provider of pallet drop safety gates for over 40 years (www.MezzGate.com).
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