As the material handling industry moves forward at a quick clip, the pursuit of safety is shifting, too. Advancing technology, the need to attract and retain workers in a tight labor market, and in some cases updated regulations are all driving changes within operations.
‘The solution is there’
One industry leader says the global markets are moving at somewhat different speeds on the issue of safety. “It’s interesting to see the different markets and how they respond,” said Derek Rickard, director of sales for North America at Cimcorp. The company is a global supplier of intralogistics automation, manufacturing, and integrating material handling systems for the tire industry as well as robotic solutions for order fulfillment and storage in the food and beverage, retail, e-commerce, fast-moving consumer goods, and postal service sectors, according to the website.
From Rickard’s vantage point, the Canadian market is particularly focused on ergonomics in the industry. “In Canada now the companies are really paying attention to not just how much employees are lifting, but also how much over the course of a shift,” he said, noting some European countries have new regulations regarding safety. While a similar regulation push has not been as evident in the U.S., Rickard believes the market will likely increase safety standards and protocols before regulators put them into official practice, especially given the labor shortage.
“Facilities are having a lot of trouble these days,” Rickard said, noting that the labor shortage in warehouses and distribution centers was already occurring before the pandemic. “COVID just exacerbated it. Now if you try to find employees willing to lift 10 or 20 pounds over their head, they will say, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to do that job,” Rickard said.
An example of how Cimcorp helps address such concerns is evident in the baking industry, where large commercial operations can have loads of trays stacked up to nine feet tall in some facilities, according to Rickard. “Workers have to go over their head and sometimes stand on their tippy-toes with 15 or 20 pounds over their head, trying to pick from one stack and go to another,” he said.
The tall queues, however, are needed to stack the trucks efficiently. “If you were only building them six feet tall, it would cost a fortune in trucking,” Rickard said. So automated solutions like those by Cimcorp able to accommodate the high end of such stacks are of interest to such companies.
Cimcorp works on systems designed to keep workers from having to lift over their shoulders or below their needs, as well as other solutions like pick-by-light systems that can simplify operations, according to Rickard. The grocery retail industry is particularly interested in adopting automation in cold storage facilities, according to Rickard. “It’s hard enough to find warehouse workers, let alone in a chiller or a freezer on a third shift,” he said, noting some companies are now looking at building cold warehouses that are fully automated.
The tire companies Cimcorp works with have similar concerns. “Tires are big, awkward to handle, heavy,” said Rickard, who said Cimcorp has designed systems to automate parts of the whole process so “an employee barely has to touch a tire,” Rickard says he encourages companies to think long term when considering automation advancements to certain jobs in the warehouse.
“The solution is there,” he said. “Think about 10 years from now. Are you really going to have workers doing those things?”
Lighting the way
At Phoenix Lighting, the focus of the dock light line is all about safety. “We work really closely with the loading dock manufacturers, OEMs,” said Melissa De Jesus, strategic sales manager. “The whole focus is safety,” she said, noting the incorporation and integration of the company’s lighting products to increase safety in the dock and around the warehouse. “Think about any area not lit very well,” she said, noting how illuminating such areas are essential for ensuring the safety of an operation’s dock workers.
There are other benefits, as well. “You’re going to avoid damage to your cargo, so you’re lowering the risk of costs and damage on your dock. It increases the flow and efficiency for the business,” De Jesus said. The dock lights themselves are “pretty standard,” according to De Jesus. “It mounts to the wall and has a pivoting arm. It allows you to rotate it into the truck,” she said. “There’s usually plenty of lighting within the warehouse. But as soon as the truck pulls up it’s just a black rectangle. “The lighting equipment can beam to illuminate the shape of the whole truck, De Jesus said.
Some of the OEM partners Phoenix Lighting works with have systems that lock the truck or open and shut based on truck engagement and De Jesus said the company’s lighting products can be integrated into such systems. De Jesus believes dimming features will be among the lighting technology trends of the future, based on accommodating worker vantage points. “It’s one of the areas that is starting to take off and will take over soon,” she said.
Within warehouses, blue lights on equipment are a newer feature that Russ Niedzwiecki has been seeing around the market. “There’s a light that can be placed on the back of a forklift that shines a kind of beam like a spotlight on the floor 13 to 16 feet out,” said Niedzwiecki, corporate safety trainer with TrainMOR, whose parent company is Morrison Industrial Equipment. “It warns operators and pedestrians that there’s a forklift in the area. That’s been a fantastic aftermarket item,” he said.
While there are not currently OSHA regulations in place for lighting inside of trucks, De Jesus said any future regulations should include voices from around the industry. “It’s important that the entire market has a say in what ‘safe’ is,” she said. But what she is certain of is that there are quite a few lost dollars in dock space each year due to lack of lighting. “There’s plenty of room for growth,” De Jesus said. “It’s a simple reason that you need it.”
Guarding safety solutions
At Wildeck, Inc. a variety of products help ensure safety, according to Cory Thomas, products manager of guarding products. Wildeck is subsidiary of Holden Industries and is a U.S. manufacturer of industrial steel work platforms, vertical lifts, rideable material lifts, safety guarding products, industrial ladders, crossovers, and more, according to the website.
“Wildeck has three different levels of protection,” said Thomas in describing the company’s guard rail gate systems, noting an LT line, an MT Medium Duty line, and an XT Heavy Duty line. The heavy-duty XT line offers a 13,000-pound impact rating at 4 miles per hour, the MT is 10,000 pounds and the LT is like a visual barrier.
Wildeck also offers dock safety gates, which Thomas said are helpful for companies as the weather warms and some opt to leave gates open. “We’re still in the middle of the big change,” he said, noting changes from old systems of painting or taping safety guides on the floor to implementing newer tech. “I think people are still in the middle of the big shift to get actual guardrail protection up,” Thomas said.
Noting the large increase in requests for Wildeck safety products in recent years, Thomas said he envisions demand will remain strong as people change warehouse layouts and updates are installed. “There’s always going to be a market for this and it definitely is going to continue to grow,” he said, noting that safety budgets have been increasing and that as e-commerce and larger warehouses grow, the need will expand. “It’s a super important aspect of every company that is becoming more of a focus point,” Thomas said.
Education and training
Others in the industry are working to educate and train on the subject of safety.
The Propane Education & Research Council offers a variety of safety suggestions when using propane. They include: wearing protective gloves, keeping open heat, flames, and ignition sources away from cylinders while refusing, handling cylinders with care, and using proper lifting techniques when transporting. “The only thing more important than keeping employees productive is keeping them safe,” said Joe Calhoun, director of off-road business development for PERC. He noted local propane suppliers can be of assistance. “Suppliers have hours of safety training and can teach your crew safe handling practices and how to properly connect a cylinder to a forklift,” Calhoun said.
At TrainMOR, which offers forklift training in any class of truck as well as a scissor and boom lift training program, options to train in person and online are both currently in use. Niedzwiecki said this flexible system allows companies to train on a regular basis, rather than thinking about how long a time span is required between training. “Even though there are lots of advances, it still boils down to the operator being trained,” he said.
Eileen Mozinski Schmidt is a freelance writer and journalist based in the Greater Milwaukee area. Email Networkeditorial@MHNetwork.com or visit eileenmozinskischmidt.wordpress.com to contact Eileen. If your company would like to be featured, email Networkeditorial@MHNetwork.com