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With the launch of our new web site, we’ve added a blog. Here we’ll keep you updated on the latest news and trends for safety in the material handling industry. That may cover many topics, from the latest forecasts for manufacturing and material handling, updates in regulations and standards from OSHA and ANSI, as well as some of our safety gate installations and custom work.

On the blog you’ll also find updates from some of the organizations we belong to, like MHEDA and MHI, as well as MHI’s ProGMA Committee.

We’re looking forward to sharing our news and views with you, and if there is a topic you would like us to touch on, just let us know.

Pallet Flow Lanes: Safety Hazard or Not?

“We decked over those flow lanes, so they don’t need safety gates there.”

That’s a common comment and misconception in industrial facilities where pallet flow lanes are installed in multi-level pick modules. These pallet flow lanes often are safety hazards; the automatic flow of pallets can injure someone standing in the lane, and can expose the worker to falls from the elevated level.

Inherently, the upper levels of pick module create the potential for fall hazards. The pallet flow lanes are installed over the rack system and were traditionally left unguarded because workers were not supposed to enter the lanes, instead they are instructed to pick from the pallet while standing on the platform. Because this positions the worker directly in front of an opening in the floor (and to prevent small items from falling off of the pallet), the lanes are often decked over. This did solve the issue of the loose items falling off the pallet, but it didn’t secure the employees from the opening in the floor, it simply moved this opening to the beginning of the lane.

Again, the thinking was the employee shouldn’t be entering the lane, but instead be standing behind the pallet on the platform. Reality, however, shows a different scenario; employees enter these lanes to retrieve a dislodged item, square up a pallet or simply because they can. This exposes them to being hit by a new pallet entering the lane, as wells as to falling from the upper level.

Because there is an egress on to the lane and a ledge above ground level, the lane should be guarded. In addition, since a pallet can be pushed into someone standing in the ledge, the guarding should be configured that no one can enter the lane while it is being loaded.

We worked in a facility that had a large, multi-level pick module with a number of bays in which they loaded pallets onto two deep pallet flow lanes in double wide bays. Employees were picking from the pallets on the second and third levels of the module. The end user was concerned for fall protection and the general safety of their employees so they were proactively looking for a guarding solution.

In order to permanently secure the ledge while allowing pallets to be loaded a dual-gate system needed to be installed. For this application, we provided a rack-supported version of our Roly safety gate, which uses dual counterbalanced gates that are interconnected so one gate is closed while the other gate is open. The gates were designed double wide to capture the two lanes in the bay and extra deep to capture the entire flow lane. The gate system used support panels that attached directly to the existing rack uprights to maximize space in the bay and for a rigid connection into the system that didn’t need to be lagged down into the decking.

The dual-gate system assured that the rear/operator side gate at the end of the lane was closed while the ledge-side gate was open, allowing the lift truck operator to load the pallets into the lane while a barrier was in place preventing the operator on the platform from entering the lane while the area was being replenished. The gate system was manually operated so the operator would open the ledge side gate when he/she was ready to pick from the pallet, which closed the ledge-side gate, maintaining a safe environment. The system also could be power operated with push-button stations on the lower level, or radio frequency remotes on the lift truck.

The end users on this particular project had concerns that the dual-gate system would impede the pace of their operation, but after installing and using for six months determined that the pace of productivity was not negatively impacted, in fact, it helped to speed up their process. The gate system became a signal between the operator on the platform and the operator on the lift truck. When the picker was ready for the lane to be replenished, he/she would close the operator gate, which opened the ledge-side gate, showing the lift truck operator that that area was ready to receive more pallets. When they were picking from the pallets, the ledge-side gate would be closed, showing the truck operator that those lanes were full or in the process of being picked.

Some companies will try to secure pallet flow lanes with self-closing swinging gates, however, we do not believe this is the right solution. A single gate system such as a swinging gate does not meet current ANSI standards for securing pallet drop areas on elevated platforms because the gates can be left open at times. This same scenario applies to pallet flow lanes, because when the lane is full, the last-pallet-in will hold the gate open, creating an unsafe, unguarded solution. The lane could be extended so the last pallet will travel far enough for the gate to close, but this will lead to production issues because the lift truck operator may load another pallet into a full lane, causing the last pallet to dangerously hang over the ledge and jam up the system. This will create an extremely unsafe area that will create new hazards.

Also, a swinging gate may secure the ledge (if all goes well and it is engineered to fit the system correctly), but it will not solve the secondary issue of keeping an employee out of the lane while the lane is being loaded. We have heard of incidents with pallet being pushed into the legs of operators who were inside the lanes – and these areas were “guarded” by swing gates. A dual-gate system eliminates all of these concerns.

Facility Safety in Food Production: A Case Study

It’s very rare that a business stays exactly the same, year after year. It’s the nature of life; businesses and processes adapt as time goes on. This is also true for the facilities that house the business processes and applications; they too change with the business.

We have seen facilities evolve for many of our customers. Products change over time, and the applications in which the products adjust accordingly. When applications or processes change within the facility, it’s a good idea to re-evaluate safety practices and equipment.

One of our long time customers has a facility that really illustrates this idea. The food-based company was changing its production processes in a mixing area. In this application, employees work on elevated decks with pallet loads of ingredients, opening the material and dumping it into a hopper. The reason for the change was to increase productivity. When reviewing the layout for the new area the facility manager realized they needed in incorporate proper safety guarding to keep the employees safe while they worked up on this redesigned platform.

Our team reviewed the platform’s design and discussed the specific requirements with the end user. The facility produces food products so the platform as well as the guarding had to be fabricated from stainless steel with special requirements that specified no bolt holes in the tubing, continuous welds, and all open tubing needing to be capped.

Next, we discussed application. Three pallets needed to be loaded side by side as there were three different ingredients being processed. The employees unloaded the bags of ingredients off of the pallet by hand, and dumped them into the hoppers behind the pallet drop area. The challenge was to keep the employees a safe distance from the ledge while allowing the material to be lifted up to the area and processed. The space in the working area was very tight, so any safety solution would need to operate in the confined area.

To assist in increasing productivity at the facility, while keeping employees safe from falling from the deck at the same time, the High Pallet Pivot safety gate was selected for use. This was also an ideal solution because the Pivot Model design is available in all stainless steel construction and could be fabricated in keeping with the end user’s special requirements.

To accommodate the lay out, we installed one double-side unit next to a single-wide unit so materials could be loaded into one of the areas while employees unloaded the pallets from the adjacent area. Now, pallets and material could be loaded and unloaded at the same time, while protecting employees from the ledges of the platform.

The High Pallet Pivot safety gate uses dual, counterbalanced gates interconnected with multiple pivot points to maintain a safe environment at all times. It handles pallet loads of up to 80 inches and takes up a minimum amount of space on the work platform, which was ideal for the tight area.

We looked again at the width of the platform after choosing the safety gate model, and because the gates were going to be installed side by side, we designed the two units to share a center stanchion, which maximized the space on the deck where employees were working.

After installing the two custom designed High Pallet Pivot safety gates, the company was able to increase production while providing fall protection for employees at all times.
Always remember to take a look at your safety needs when applications and processes change in your facility. Even if the space is tight or you have goals to increase productivity, safety is always of the utmost importance, and it doesn’t have to impede on operations or impact productivity.

Four Tips to Keep Seasonal Workers Safe

With Thanksgiving behind us and the holiday season knocking at the door, it’s a busy time for the material handling industry. If you look at the news, there are stories about increased consumer spending for the holidays and the prevalence of e-commerce, which is good for business.

As companies in the material handling and distribution continue to ramp up to meet holiday demands, many are looking to hire a temporary, seasonal workforce for the last few months of the year. A temporary workforce can be the key to successfully surviving the busy holiday season, but it’s important to remember these new employees do not have the background with your facility, and often are not trained to the extent as full-time employees.

Navigating the facility, picking and handling goods are just a couple of the tasks given to a temporary workforce. Just like full-time employees, these workers must stay safe during their time with your company.

Here are four quick things to do to make sure your temporary labor force stays safe throughout the busy holiday season:

Review Areas and Applications
While it’s likely your safety systems are already in place, review the areas in which your temporary employees will be working and proactively install safety devices in any areas in which they may be needed and make sure they are functioning properly. These safety devices should maintain a safe environment without heavily relying on employees to ensure the device is always in place and functioning. 

Give Facility Tours
When you have a group of new material handling employees coming to work during the busy months of the year, it’s important to give them a tour of the facility, highlighting the areas in which they will be picking and depositing products. Make sure they understand their roles, as well as how to operate all of the equipment, including safety systems. Picking often requires working from upper levels, and because the employees are new to the facility, it’s important to make them aware of the ledges and safety structures that are used to prevent injuries and falls.

Clarify the Role of Technology
Humans are not the only ones working in a distribution center or warehouse - automated vehicles and robots are increasingly deployed in these facilities. It’s important to discuss the roles of the machines, including how and when they work, with temporary employees to ensure they understand and are aware of the machines. This can help prevent accidents, and keep employees safe on the job.

Demonstrate Proper Use of Safety Equipment
While safety systems should be intuitive, they are often not used properly when the orders and picking activity increase. Because these jobs are often tiring and require repetitive motions throughout the day, it is important to show the temporary workers how to properly use each piece of safety equipment they will encounter. Be sure to highlight the machine guarding, noting it should stay in place, as well as any safety gate systems. Also discuss working on an elevated platform - make sure they know when to operate the safety gates, and when they can move about the ledge safely.

After the holiday rush, take some time to review potential new hazards, as sometimes new employees will uncover safety issues in your facility. Talk with employees and analyze data to determine what worked well, what did not and any areas, if any, that need to be secured moving forward. If you need expert advice after the review, consult a safety professional in the material handling industry.

Rack Supported Pivot Gates: A Case History

A number of years ago we were contacted by a systems integrator that needed a safety solution for the pick modules they were designing for a client. As an innovator in material handling safety solutions for over 30 years, there are few applications that we haven’t seen, and this project was no exception.

The system was being designed for a national retail company’s new distribution center which included several pick modules that extended three levels above the floor. The operations process consisted of lifting full-case pallets up into the pick module and staging them into the pallet rack bays. Pickers on the platform would fulfill orders by removing items from the pallet and placing them into bins on to the takeaway conveyor.

One of the systems integrator’s main concerns was securing the ledges of the elevated platforms; the system was three stories tall, and the pickers were going to be working off the pallets staged at the ledges of the module. Their client wanted a system that would ensure that proper safety guarding would be in place at all times, and that it would not depend on the actions of the employees to keep the guarding in place.

Our team has a lot of experience securing this type of application. We designed the original dual-gate system, the Roly safety gate, in the early 1980s. The Roly model consists of a gate at the ledge that is interconnected to a rear-side gate behind the pallet, configured so when one gate opens, the opposite gate closes, ensuring a gate is always in place to secure the ledge. A few years later, we modified the design to attach to the rack uprights to secure pallet drop areas in pick modules.

The system integrator was familiar with our Rack Supported version of the Roly safety gate from working together on several previous projects, and was interested in the same model for its client’s new distribution center. However, the lay out of this system provided some challenges to using that model. Due to the footprint of the building and how the modules had to be configured, there was a narrow aisle on the platform between the rack uprights and the conveyor. The pickers pushed carts down this aisle instead of rolling pallets so the aisle didn’t need to be very wide, and this lay out helped the ergonomics because the picker didn’t have to move too far with the picked items because the conveyor was located a few feet behind them.

The narrow aisle, however, created issues with properly guarding the ledges for fall protection. The Rack Supported Roly model closes behind the pallet with a permanent structure, which would have been an obstruction for the pickers walking down the aisle. Occasionally this is solved by projecting off the face of the module, but again the lay out of the building precluded this solution.

A new solution was needed. We knew a dual-gate system was still the best way to secure this type of area, because it maintains a safe environment at all times and doesn’t depend on the actions of the operator to keep the area safe. We needed to find a way to install a dual-gate system without the permanent framework that would extend back into the narrow picking aisle.

The solution was a Rack Supported version of our Pivot safety gate. The Pivot model, which we designed in the 1990s for a large national record retention center, is a dual-gate system that uses a pivoting framework to maintain a safe area.

We modified the design for this application so the safety device would mount onto the existing rack uprights. By attaching the safety gate to the pallet rack, we maximized the width of the bay, utilized a rugged connection that would be secured to the upright instead of lagging down into decking, and most importantly for this project, reduced the amount of depth required. Instead of a support structure that would be mounted back into the aisle, the only fixed support was on the rack upright. The rear-side gate and the support components would extend back beyond the upright to capture the pallet then “pivot” up and out of the way when the pallet was being picked. This allowed the aisle to remain clear whenever the ledge-side gate was closed.

The system integrator and end user loved this concept, and after we received the details on their racking configuration, we designed our supports to bolt directly onto these uprights without any holes needing to be drilled. The installation was a breeze, and the end result created a permanent, safe environment that did not impede on production.

To ensure the safety device was easy to operate for the end user, we included a hydraulic gas assist mechanism that allowed the gates to be opened and closed by a fingertip, even by employees with limited strength. We also custom painted the support frames to match the pallet rack color, and the gates were powder-coated in high-visibility safety yellow.

Since this initial project, the end user has specified the Rack-Supported Pivot Gate on all of its new distribution centers and retrofitted them into their existing facilities.