Mitigating Warehouse Safety Hazards During High Demand
In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the number of warehouse employees — reaching more than 1.8 million U.S. workers in 2023. But there has also been a rise in the number and size of new warehouses being built.
In 2022, Tesla opened the Nevada Gigafactory, which boasts 5.3 million square feet of floor space, while that same year Amazon broke ground on a 4.1 million-square-foot warehouse of their own in California.
However, no matter the size of the facility or how many employees work there, warehouse employees can be exposed to many hazards. It is important to educate yourself on warehouse safety to protect your employees, your facility, and your organization.
Worker Injuries and Warehouse Violations
It will not surprise you to learn that warehouses are among the top sites of worker injuries each year. In 2022, the worker injury rate within transportation and warehousing was 4.8 per 100 full-time workers, the highest industry rate for the second year in a row.
Among those injuries, more than 45% were sprains, strains, or fractures. These types of injuries are often the result of preventable accidents that could have been avoided with effective employee training or perhaps simply more employee — or management — attention and care.
In addition to a high rate of injuries, the warehousing and storage industry was hit with more than $2 million in OSHA violations during fiscal year 2023 (October 2022-September 2023). The top five most costly citation categories were as follows:
- Powered industrial trucks, 120 citations totaling $501,993 in fines
- Maintenance, safeguards, and operational features for exit routes, 53 citations totaling $260,990 in fines
- Hazard communication, 39 citations totaling $64,854 in fines
- Wiring methods, components, and equipment for general use, 33 citations totaling $57,058 in fines
- General, 28 citations totaling $75,747 in fines
More than a third of all warehousing violations in the past year came about from inspections that resulted in multiple citations. When companies fail to maintain OSHA compliance, they not only risk potentially massive penalties, but they also put all their employees in danger each and every day.
Job Demands Create Injury Potential
The warehousing industry inherently comes with employee safety hazards, but recent developments outside the physical danger of the workplace are contributing to current — and potentially future — warehouse injuries.
Supply Chain Shortages
There are many technological reasons for current supply chain issues, including a global computer chip shortage, but the human factor is also creating problems. Large numbers of baby boomers reaching retirement age combined with fewer high school or college graduates choosing warehousing as a career leaves gaps in warehouse staffing, especially at the middle management level.
While the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic created an increased need for workers as e-commerce saw massive gains with millions of Americans forced to work (and shop) from home, by mid-2021, employees were ready for a change. Something known as the Great Resignation saw millions of workers — 4.3 million in August 2021 alone — quit their jobs, meaning those left behind were saddled with more responsibility and longer hours. In a physical industry like warehousing, this creates employee fatigue and wildly increases the likelihood of incidents.
As employee numbers fluctuate, and experienced workers retire or resign early, employee training often suffers. Initial training may be done to get new employees up to speed but continued training often falls to the wayside. Retraining benefits every employee at every level. After all, workers not only need to stay up to date with regulations, but also must know how to follow all preventive and reactive steps in various situations, making it imperative they fully understand the training.
Prepare for the Holiday Rush
During the holiday season, which lasts from just before Thanksgiving through the end of the year in the United States, many warehouses bring in additional employees to help with an increased demand — whether that is due to working in a fulfillment center or simply the typical end-of-the-year rush that comes with nearly any job.
When warehouses operate at peak capacity, or beyond, the risk of workplace injuries increases exponentially. Not only are there more workers, but they are also trying to work faster than normal.
Here are a few areas to focus on to ensure you are keeping all your employees as safe as possible during the busy holiday season.
Properly Prepare All Workers
To start, you must ensure all employees are properly trained on the potential hazards of your workplace. No matter the time of year, temporary or new workers need to be trained upon hire, but this is also a good time to have existing employees retrain over common warehouse safety topics like safe lifting, ergonomics, powered industrial trucks, or slips, trips and falls.
Anticipate Your Unique Risks
Are you a fulfillment center with stocked shelves that require forklift usage? Do you operate in large, refrigerated storage units? Does your warehouse store hazardous chemicals? Of course, you should be aware of the unique risks at your job site year-round, but now is the time to identify and prepare for unique safety hazards your new employees may not have encountered before.
Hold More Safety Meetings
These go by many names — toolbox talks, tailgate meetings, safety briefings, and more — but no matter what you call them, the goal is to provide a quick 5- to 15-minute discussion over a certain safety topic that is relevant to that team. Now is the perfect time to increase the frequency of these short, but important meetings. Toolbox talks keep safety front of mind for all employees, and when safety is openly discussed, your employees are more likely to engage in and encourage safe behavior.
Safety Involves Mental Health, Too
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more one in five U.S. adults suffered from some type of mental illness in 2021. Numerous studies have been conducted on mental health in adults, with most seeming to focus on millennials (27-42 years old in 2023) and the adult segment of the Gen Z generation (20-26 years old). However, just because the younger generations are more likely to be open about their own mental health challenges does not mean older generations are not suffering.
Of course, every organization will have their own mental health issues to address, due to different company sizes, industries, jobsite setups, and employee demographics. The best thing you can do is talk to your employees. Find out what their concerns are, work together to come up with solutions, and be open in continuing discussions.
Remember that mental health awareness should — without question — be part of your workplace culture and can easily be tied into any safety program.
Partner for Employee Safety
Warehouses are a necessity in many industries, but they do come with their own risks, including hazardous substances, heavy machinery, and potentially dangerous locations within the warehouse itself. See how HSI can help you create a safety training plan to help protect your workers and your organization.