Pallet flow lanes can greatly help the efficiency of a distribution center but they can be a nightmare for safety managers as the proper method for securing these areas can be confusing.
Pallet flow operations often look like this: the facility features a multi-level rack supported pick module where multiple deep pallets are pushed into the system. Flow rails are installed between the beams often at an angle to allow the pallets to flow into the system as they are loaded. There are typically one or two lanes in a bay, sometimes with an aisle between the lanes in a cluster picking application. Typically the picker on the platform will pick from the first pallet position or enter the lanes to pick from various pallets, putting the items on a takeaway conveyor to be packaged and shipped to individual locations.
For productivity, this is a great way to load many pallets into a system and for the pallets to be picked in a first loaded, first picked sequence, but it’s not necessarily good for safety.
No matter how the pallet flow lanes are configured, when they are in a multiple-level system there will always be a ledge that needs to be secured. Sometimes two ledges create fall hazards: the one at the end of the lane where the operator picks, and the one at the beginning of the lane where the lift truck loads. For this reason, the lanes are often decked over, which accomplishes two things. Decking fills in the ledge at the picking position and leaves only one ledge where the lift truck loads, and also prevents loose items like boxes or pieces of the pallet, from falling to the levels below where they could injure someone.
Decking is good, however, decking also creates safety concerns. With decking there is an egress into the lane. In cluster-picking applications, this egress is warranted so the pickers can pick from several pallets, but most times the operation doesn’t ask for employees to enter the lanes. In reality, the decking allows egress into the lane so now the edge of the lane must be guarded.
Safety managers know that they need to provide fall protection for employees picking within the module, and OSHA and ANSI require protection for employees working at any elevation of over four feet.
So now that you’ve decked over the flow lane and created one ledge that needs to be secured, the question is how do you secure this ledge? There are two ways the ledges of pallet flow lanes can be secured. We’ll call them “good” and “best.”
“Good” solutions are self-closing swing gates designed specifically for pallet flow lanes that the lift truck pushes open, and once the pallet flows into the lane, the gate automatically closes. The gates should be designed to accommodate the pushing of the lift truck and load, and consist of a solid panel to create a smooth transition for the pallet flowing onto the lanes. The swing gates should include tension adjustable hinges so the speed of the closing gate can correspond with the weight of the pallet loads, as well as rugged stops so the gates do not swing outward.
The two main injuries we hear about in pallet flow applications are people falling from the upper levels and pallet loads being pushed into the legs of employees when they are working in the lane. If designed correctly, this type of gate can create a safe environment – at times. When the lane is empty this type of gate will be closed, but when the lane is full the last pallet loaded will hold the gate open, creating an unsafe area. A pallet is not an acceptable fall protection barrier and it doesn’t protect employees from being inside the lane when pallets are being loaded.
The self-closing gate is an improvement over having no barrier, and while it will be in place to help prevent some fall related injuries, there also will be times when it impedes safety, which is why it is a good solution but not the best solution.
‘The “best” solution is to install a dual-gate safety system that maintains a safe environment for pickers at all times. This design uses a gate at the ledge and a second gate at the end of the lane where the picker is standing. The gates are interconnected and counterbalanced so when one gate is open, the opposite gate is closed. Operationally, the ledge is open when the lift truck loads load pallets into the lanes, which means the rear-side gate is closed, preventing employees from accessing the lane and keeping them a safe distance from the ledge. Pickers then can manually raise the rear gate, which closes the ledge gate, securing the ledge while they pick from the pallets, as well as preventing the lift truck from loading more pallets while they are in that area.
This type of dual-gate system can also be designed extra wide and extra deep to accommodate the design of the pallet flow system, and is available in a rack-supported design to attach to the existing pallet rack to maximize space in the bay and for a rugged connection that doesn’t need to get lagged down into the decking. Dual-gate systems are available for both the inbound and outbound lanes and will maintain a safe environment at all times, ensuring there is a barrier that is always in place and keeping the employees out of the lane when the lane is loaded. These safety systems meet updated OSHA codes and ANSI standards as well.
If you have questions about securing your pallet flow lanes, we’re happy to help.
The material handling industry is currently undergoing many changes, e-commerce is booming, facilities are growing and robots and AGVs are working alongside humans. Safety needs in these facilities remain constant, as employees continue to work on elevated platforms to move palletized material.
As a company that specializes in keeping employees safe on the job, Mezzanine Safeti-Gates, Inc. has been steeped in safety for over 30 years. We asked our President, Aaron Conway, a few questions about the state of the industry.
Q: Everyone knows they need to create a safe work environment so why is it so hard to actually do it?
A: It’s true that every company knows they need to create the safest environment possible, and most target a zero injury culture. These companies get it; they also dedicate a lot of resources to achieve this goal. They hire safety professionals, hold safety meetings and invest in safety products.
The problem is operations are always changing as companies try to stay competitive in their individual markets. The material handling systems designed to implement these changes are complicated and are constantly being improved or replaced. So it is very important to stay on top of the changes inside the facility and to be vigilant about spotting potential hazards before they become issues.
Here are a few examples of changes that are made pretty often in facilities. Did you recently install a mezzanine to maximize the cubic space in the building? If so, are you properly guarding the pallet drop area with a dual-gate system? Did you install a new hopper or reactor on your production platform? Do you have proper safety guarding in place to keep the operators safe while they pick from the pallet? Sometimes you can recognize these hazards just by actually watching the new process taking place; other times you need to consult a company that specializes in the type of guarding solutions that you need to install. Either way, you have to stay focused and continuously observe what is going on around you.
Q: How do the successful companies keep these areas safe?
A: I can tell fairly quickly when I visit a facility whether or not it is going to succeed in its goal of creating a safe environment. The facility provides obvious clues from the safety guarding that has been implemented in the past and the environment they are currently working in. You can also learn a lot from the interactions between the various divisions inside the company. The production teams have their own concerns regarding the efficiency of the operation, the safety teams have concern for the well being of the employees, and the corporate team is concerned with the costs. How these parties get along is imperative to the successful implementation of a safe, efficient, and profitable facility.
The companies with teams that discuss issues and work together succeed; the companies where these factions are unable to get along fail. For example, say a company decides to replace its old wooden guardrail and the latch chains around their pallet drop areas. The safety team wants steel railings and dual-gate pallet drop systems; the operations team wants any safety system to be power operated so the lift truck can control them and to rearrange the platform to make it more efficient. As long as all parties are involved from the beginning, it will most likely be a success.
Q: What has been the most challenging job that the company has undertaken since you’ve come on board?
A: This past year we had a very large chemical company in the Northeast reach out to us because they were looking to make their pallet drop areas safe. The facility consisted of multiple buildings, each with several mezzanines that had been built and added onto over the past 40 years. The challenge was not only the number of areas they were looking to secure, but the fact that each area had different requirements in terms of the available space, the size of the pallets being delivered and the process for the material moving through the area.
The company did several steps right. They recognized they had a problem, got a professional company involved to assist them, and got the various parties inside the company to understand what they were attempting to do and why. It was a challenge, as we custom designed solutions for each area to make everything safe without impeding on production, but the challenge made the end result more rewarding,.
Q: Can you tell us about any trends you are seeing in material handling operations?
A: Systems are getting larger and more complex, and there is more automation. These scenarios are increasing the potential hazards in the facility and require specific safety solutions. Larger systems mean that people are working on higher elevations where a fall could now result in a fatality instead of an injury. The systems are getting more complex, meaning there is more motion, noise, lights, and distractions for employees working in the systems, which can all lead to incidents. Increased automation means there are more mechanized movements from AGV’s, robots or machines, and because employees have to work around these machines, more opportunities for danger.
Q: Any insights into the future of industrial safety?
A: I see safety becoming even more paramount in industrial facilities. As the systems grow more complex, the guarding solutions will be more innovative than ever before. Yes, there will be fewer workers performing repetitive dangerous tasks, due to increased automation. But employees will continue to working in the facility and their safety will become one of the top priorities of the company. The potential for serious injury will still exist and the ramifications for not creating a secure environment will become more severe. The potential loss of income, the facility being forced to shut down, or reputation of being an unsafe workplace will become too serious of an issue not to prevent.