What are the Risks Associated with Warehousing?

Risks are always present in any kind of workplace. It’s especially true in dynamic warehouse operations wherein there are a lot of objects and movements.

As more objects and movements are introduced, collisions are getting more likely. These collisions result to costly downtimes. Each downtime is getting more expensive as the scale of warehouse operations increases.

In fact, scaling up the warehouse operations often means overhauling the entire risk and traffic management in the warehouse. It’s similar to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar. Early on, caterpillars eat leaves and their anatomy is enough for that. But when caterpillars turn into butterflies (after the pupa stage), their food requirements change. This is also accompanied by a change in their anatomy to better meet their needs.

Managing risks in the face of change

It’s a similar case in warehouse operations. New risks and hazards continue to sprout as the warehouse operations scale up (e.g. more goods handled, increasing usage of both the horizontal and vertical space). As a result, risk management in warehouses requires a dynamic approach.

For instance, the top- and mid-level managers might not have updated information about the risks and hazards present in the workplace. This can happen when the business gets bigger or takes a new direction (e.g. fragile and hazardous goods are now being handled). In this scenario, the “risk management manual” and safety practices in the workplace are now outdated. The documents remain the same but the workers now are getting exposed to new kinds of hazards and risks.

That’s why one of the first steps in risk management is consulting the workers. They are in the frontlines and they’re the ones most familiar with the safety and health risks present in the workplace. When operations change or scale up, they will be the ones to first notice the new risks.

Consulting the workers is not just a one-time event. It should be regular and proactive. After all, risk management is a proactive and continuous process. Over the course of a month or a year, it’s possible that several new risks are introduced. This then requires the updating of the documents and controls relating to risk management.

Identifying the risks and hazards in the warehouse

Workers and managers work hand in hand in identifying the things or potential events that may harm people. Some of those common things and events are:

  • The physical work environment itself
  • Equipment, materials and substances used or present in or within the vicinity of the workplace
  • The work tasks and how these are performed
  • The interaction between different people and equipment

These are common in almost any type of workplace. For instance, in a corporate office there are hazards relating to the chairs, desks, shelves, papers, computers, printers and other office equipment. Even if most of the equipment and the staff are stationary most of the time, hazards are still present.

But what makes warehouses unique (and potentially more dangerous and hazardous) is that there are a lot of movements. Both the people and equipment are in constant motion especially during busy days and tight deadlines. Perhaps the only stationary things are the shelves and racks. The drivers, non-drivers and forklifts are all in constant motion. Boxes, goods and packages are also being constantly pulled out or put in.

Those movements and the constant interaction among people, objects and equipment drastically increase the complexity of warehouse operations. In other words, walking around the warehouse and inspecting equipment, racks, shelves and everything else are not enough to identify the risks present in the workplace. We also have to account for the movement, traffic and interaction in the area.

How do forklifts move from point A to point B? How fast are they going? What’s the volume of traffic in each aisle? How do drivers manoeuvre around corners and intersections? Where do collisions might happen? Where do non-drivers usually do their work? How are hazardous packages getting handled?

Indeed, movement brings the complexity level of warehouse operations to a high level. We have to account for various scenarios in all these steps:

  • Receiving and unloading goods and packages from suppliers, importers and manufacturers
  • Transferring the goods onto pallets for later storage (either short-term or long-term storage)
  • Storing the goods in appropriate physical and temperature conditions
  • During customer orders, picking the products from the warehouse shelves and then preparing them for transport (e.g. wrapping)
  • Loading the orders into the vehicles so they can be delivered to the customers

Each step presents risks and hazards because movements and interactions are always there. For example, receiving and unloading the goods might make the forklifts tip over. Loading the orders into the vehicles also presents risks because of the lifting and driving required (e.g. the forklifts carrying the goods from the shelf into the vehicles).

It’s just one dimension. What happens if the entire fleet is working at once? All of the forklifts might be receiving and unloading the goods. Or, some do the unloading while some perform the loading. In other words, there might be a constant back and forth movement between the warehouse shelves and the vehicles that carry or will transport the goods.

Ways of controlling risks

Workers can inform managers about the risks and hazards present in the warehouse (whether there’s movement or none). It’s a continuous and dynamic approach to identifying risks so that control measures will also be continuously updated.

But no matter the types and levels of risks, there are common effective ways of dealing with them:

  1. Eliminate the hazards (highest priority)
  2. Substitute the hazard with something safer
  3. Isolate the hazard from people
  4. Reduce the risks through engineering and management controls
  5. Reduce exposure to the hazard
  6. Use personal protective equipment

Eliminating the hazards is the best way to make the workplace safe. For instance, slippery surfaces will sooner or later cause accidents no matter how careful the workers are. Eliminating the hazard (in this case, removing the slippery surfaces or getting rid of the events that lead to slippery surfaces) is the best way to prevent accidents.

In many cases, the hazard must be substituted with something safer. After all, many industrial processes commonly involve dealing or working around hazards. For example, it could be really helpful to reduce the height of shelves and racks. This way, the falling of goods will be less likely to happen. It’s still a hazard in itself, but it’s a lot safer than the previous alternative.

Another effective way of dealing with risks is by isolating the hazard from people (eliminating or minimising contact). For instance, barriers, gates and rails are often installed to restrict human access to certain areas of the plant. In warehouses, there might be designated areas wherein only forklifts should be present at set times. This way, non-drivers and pedestrians will avoid contact with moving forklifts. This effectively prevents accidents and even improves the driver’s focus because there are fewer things to worry about.

To take it a step further, engineers and managers also implement measures to reduce the risks and the people’s exposure to them. For instance, limiting the exposure times to hazardous tasks will make employees safer (or fewer employees will be exposed). More effective ventilation systems might also be installed so the concentration of chemical fumes won’t get too high in warehouses that store hazardous and volatile chemicals. Personal protective equipment (PPE such as helmets, hard hats, gloves, protective eyewear) can also be effective in limiting the employees’ exposure to a hazard.

Risks associated with warehousing & how to deal with them

It starts with identifying the risks through inspection and by consulting the workers. Then, the hazards should be eliminated and controlled. But accidents and working around hazards are still inevitable, which is why people’s exposure to the hazard should be limited as much as possible.

Warehouse environments are complex and dynamic. As a result, identifying the risks and hazards could be really challenging. Formulating and implementing the control measures is another challenge for engineers, workers and managers to overcome.

We have to map all the possible workflows and scenarios in the warehouse especially during peak operations. More objects and more movements introduce more risks (especially collisions) in the workplace. In addition, these risks often evolve and increase in number as the business grows or as changes in operations are introduced.

To make risk management and accident prevention easier, ShockWatch now has modern fleet management and accident prevention solutions specifically designed for warehouse environments. Our fleet management solutions ensure OH&S compliance and monitor equipment operation to proactively prevent downtimes and accidents. On the other hand, our accident prevention solutions focus on alert and warning systems so accidents between forklift trucks and pedestrians (or forklift vs forklift) will be avoided.

Contact us today and let’s discuss how to effectively deal with the risks associated with warehousing by tapping into our technological solutions.