safety article
Forklift Risk Rises in Heavy Traffic

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Picture a warehouse where 90 per cent of the people inside have received no related safety training and you might think of a developing country in which safety is almost non-existent.

The truth could lie much closer to home, maybe only a few blocks away. Walk into a busy big box store and you'll often see forklift operators attempting to thread their way past throngs of customers.

This intricate dance can be a deadly one, not only for customers, but also for anyone working in an operation where forklifts are present. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 100 warehouse workers die every year in forklift-related accidents. Another 20,000 are injured.

John Mroszczyk, a Boston-area professional engineer and safety consultant, says customers in big box stores are at risk of being struck by moving forklifts or by merchandise being moved to or from shelves high overhead. "You should never be moving (a forklift) with an elevated load," says Mroszczyk. "You should only be carrying one pallet at a time and it should be shrink-wrapped or secured so the boxes don't fall off. You should operate a forklift in a very smooth manner, not with herky-jerky motions that could cause a load to fall off."

Safety practices must be followed to the letter, he says. "The one time you don't (do it), a load falls off a (lift) truck or a customer gets hit. There's really no room for "We're too busy today', 'We're short-staffed,' 'We're in a hurry,' or 'I forgot'."

Mroszczyk says customers can be unpredictable. Lost in thought, they can step right in front of a moving forklift—even one that's emitting a continuous warning beep.

If there's any possibility of contact between customers and forklift operators, companies need to have one or preferably two "walkers." These are employees who clear customers away from moving forklifts and provide another set of eyes for forklift operators.

When goods are being moved to or from high shelves, customers must be kept away by staff "spotters" or by netting strung across both ends of an aisle. Adjacent aisles must also be protected, since goods can fall onto unsuspecting customers.

Customers also need to stay alert to hazards and keep children close by their sides.

The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) offers these additional safety tips:

  • Height policies need to be in place for stocked items which are stacked one on top of the other.
  • Staff should patrol aisles several times each day to straighten piles of merchandise and correct any "leaners."
  • Shelf-stocking activities should ideally take place during times of light customer traffic, or better yet, outside store hours.
  • Staff should be educated on the need for maintaining stability when stacking. Items which are "slippery" should never be stacked on top of one another.
  • Workers should never hand heavy or awkward objects to customers standing below, because injuries can easily occur.

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