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A Million-Dollar Issue: Getting People and Machines to Play Nice in Warehouse Environments

From 2011 to 2017, 614 workers lost their lives in forklift-related incidents and more than 7,000 nonfatal injuries with days away from work occurred every year. Despite increasing automation of distribution centers and warehouses, the trend line is basically flat. While forklifts are the proximate cause in these incidents, safety leaders have learned through investigations that accidents often occur even when forklift drivers do everything right.

The danger from forklift-related injuries was highlighted recently in a settlement between Amazon and co-defendants and two workers on an Amazon warehouse project. The two workers alleged they suffered career-ending injuries when an uncertified forklift driver caused a massive storage rack to fall on them, according to a Law360 report. Five days into a jury trial, Amazon, Duke Realty Services, and Steel King Industries settled the case by agreeing to pay the pair $19.1 million.

Adhering to OSHA’s training rule for forklift operators is clearly a minimum requirement. However, it’s important to address another potential hazard—the actions of those who work around moving trucks. You don’t have to be in the driver’s seat to facilitate an accident—the behavior of pedestrians account for much of the danger.

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Pedestrian vehicular incidents are the second leading cause of injuries involving forklifts, according to OSHA data. They account for 20 percent of all forklift injuries with an average of 20 days of lost work for the victim. And while the agency may never promulgate enforceable mandates for pedestrian training, attention to pedestrian awareness training is an important part of a safety program for warehouses and distribution centers. It should identify the responsibilities of those working around moving vehicles, and measure whether applicable safeguards and technology are in place to protect pedestrians.

Safety experts also suggest that pedestrian safety campaigns go beyond the warehouse and include a review of whether the organization is taking appropriate measures to protect pedestrians outside of the industrial environment. Experts we spoke with warn that companies must not stop at “speed bump” safety; and to adopt techniques that fit the environment to protect persons from moving vehicles.

What’s the Answer?
Traffic management, safety equipment, and training are key, say experts. Marking pedestrian-only routes to separate forklift and people helps and physical separation is better than signs and painted lines. Cameras, alarms, and flashing lights can help increase situational awareness among both truck operators and pedestrians. And training—and refresher training—for both truck operators and pedestrians helps to raise their IQ of the hazards involved.

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Safety and health directors also offered the following ideas for reducing the risk of harm from forklifts.

  1. Provide pedestrian safeguards.
  2. Include a session on pedestrian safety for operators during industrial truck operator training programs (as required by OSHA).
  3. Instruct everyone on pedestrian safety measures during general safety training.
  4. Conduct checks to make sure operators and pedestrians are meeting their respective responsibilities.

Specifically, they offered the following 15 tips to mitigate the danger pedestrians face:

  • Equip counterbalance trucks with back-up alarms. Adjust their decibel-level alarms to ensure they can be heard.
  • Consider using a commercial speed inhibitor on forklifts that offers robust resistance to tampering.
  • Assess the need for pedestrian warning devices. Alarms with flashing lights can be installed which activate when a door leading into a traffic area is opened. Be aware, however, that using these devices can lead to operators driving more recklessly if they know pedestrians are not around. If so, pedestrians would be at greater risk if the alarm is non-operational than if there is no alarm at all.
  • Place convex mirrors at blind corners and intersections and on lift trucks.
  • Hang signs on crosswalk barriers and on doors leading into traffic areas that warn of forklift trucks in use.
  • Inspect areas of industrial truck use and check to see that forklifts are parked out of the way with the key removed and forks flat on the floor, loads are balanced and secure, and operators drive in reverse when loads are carried high and block the operator’s vision.
  • Make sure daily documented lift truck inspections are actually performed and are complete, including horn testing.
  • Make sure truck maintenance schedules are met and complete, including brake inspection.
  • Instruct pedestrians how to use the “system” you’ve set up. Don’t assume that brightly colored paint or tape which form traffic lines will be immediately understood by new employees or visitors.
  • Install protective barriers that can withstand the impact of a lift truck at walkways and in doorways—anywhere a pedestrian may unknowingly step into a lane of traffic.
  • Ensure lighting is adequate in all industrial traffic areas. Install lights on powered equipment if necessary.
  • Provide separate pedestrian doors from those used for truck entrance and exits.
  • Do not allow pedestrians into areas without traffic lanes and unpredictable traffic patterns.
  • Provide employees instruction on how to work safely as a pedestrian around industrial powered trucks, including do not rush around corners in traffic areas; do not walk under raised forks; be alert when walking on ramps; stay behind protective barriers and within designated walkways; and move out of the way of vehicles even though you have the right of way.
  • Bolster instruction by showing pedestrian safety videos.

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