Operational Assessment - Distribution Center A Safe Place To Work?


I will never forget this accident. On a Sunday I got a call from a client, “Can you come immediately to our operational assessment safetydistribution center?” several hours away. Literally a wall of improperly stacked product had collapsed from cartons being crushed. The falling wall created a “domino effect” knocking down 8 aisles of 3 level pallet racking. Luckily no one was hurt or worse – killed. True story.

As we do operational assessment for clients, we see many issues routinely that need to be rectified.
  • Pallets overhead extending well beyond racking cross beams
  • Discarded trash in the base of the racking systems
  • “Slip and trip hazards” aisles of broken wooden pallets, trash, discarded shrink wrap
  • Excessive pushing, pulling or lifting by employees as they pick, process and move product;
  • Countless racking support risers and cross beams damaged by fork lift operators to the point of compromising the racking system’s strength.

On the other hand I have conducted operational assessments in many larger facilities that take safety and housekeeping to a whole other level of professionalism and pride. If you have taken the Operations Summit tours you’ve seen some good ones at Innotrac, eBay, UPS to name a few. They don’t tolerate these conditions for a minute. And neither should you.

READ: Key Principles to Assessing Your Warehouse Operations

We are all aware of the potential costs of accidents and injuries to our businesses and we want the best for our employees. However, I want to encourage companies to take a step back and objectively conduct an operational assessment to address their safety standards, training programs and practices. Here are 7 things to consider:

1. Housekeeping is an indicator of a DC’s management attitude and the center’s efficiency

We have never seen a well -managed center that was a “housekeeping mess”. Efficient and well managed centers deal with safety and housekeeping as part of the standards involving productivity and quality improvement. This starts at the top, when management is on the floor an picks up trash, it reinforces to the rest of the staff to do the same. Lean standards embrace these concepts too.

2. Warehouse safety standards and mandatory training

Do you have a formal written set of warehouse safety standards? New employees are at a significantly higher risk than other employees. It pays to have mandatory training programs and refresher courses periodically. It creates a culture and workplace where people are looking out for each either. Material handling equipment and product safety companies and OSHA have great resources to get you started.

3. Improving safety involves other departments

Let me give you an example involving merchants and purchasing managers. As we work to reduce the shipping costs that DIM/weight charges are going to add to operations, we need to be sure we don’t reduce the carton strength so that they can’t be stacked safely or as ship alone products. Sounds obvious but we see many distribution centers where this is a concern. Work with the merchants and purchasing to find the right balance.

4. Forklift operations

I singled out this area because, OSHA reports about 100 warehouse employees are killed and 95,000 injured every year in accidents while operating forklifts. Studies show that about 50% of the most serious accidents in DCs involve fork lifts. Are your fork lift operators fully trained? Do you have bumpers on end of aisles to protect racking systems? Do you proactively replace racking which is damaged?

READ: 38 Fulfillment Cost Reduction and Productivity Improvement Ideas

5. Drug testing and physical exams

Now 22 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana to some degree. Large warehouse employers may be way ahead of small to moderate sized companies in making drug testing mandatory for new employees. In discussing this topic with the VP of Operations for a large multichannel company, they have added physical exams for new employees. I think it’s smart for both the employer and the employee. What is your company’s policies? How should they be changed?

6. Create safety awareness

Tracking and posting your safety record in high traffic areas will increase awareness. Post your “drug free” workplace policies too. Investigate “near misses”. What lessons are learned from them and how do you feed this info back to the supervisors and workforce to prevent injuries?

7. Apply ergonomics

Let me use several recent operational assessment examples. In one case, rather than using power MHE equipment, workers had to use movable ladders to pick full cartons with both hands up to 12 foot off the floor. Second example. In a 70,000 sq. ft. ship alone product facility, workers used non-motorized flat-bed carts to pick oversized products and pull orders to the shipping stations. Tremendous effort. Both companies invested in proper equipment to reduce injury. How can you change tasks in your warehouse and reduce fatigue and risk?

Improving your workplace safety lowers health insurance and Workmen’s Compensation claims; reduces absenteeism; and reduces fatigue in tasks which make the worker susceptible to injury and injury to others. Safety is everyone’s responsibility.