People working in industries such as warehousing, trucking, and product distribution often think about workplace injuries through the lens of machinery and common back strains. While the statistics regarding those incidents remain concerning, a wide range of other items in these and parallel environments put workers at risk as well. At first thought, pallet safety standards may seem like a peripheral danger. However, failure to comply with proper pallet handling protocols can result in significant workplace injuries.
Stop and consider that a pallet typically weighs 30 to 70 pounds and routinely gets stacked up to 6 feet or higher. Warehouse industry regulations allow stacks up to 15 feet in some cases. That’s a hefty amount of towering wood or plastic to manage. Now consider that more than 1.3 million people work in warehouse and storage settings that require proper pallet handling on a daily basis. That figure does not account for the 3.5 million truck drivers transporting pallets to the retail outlet and shelf-stockers who use hand-operated machinery to haul pallets down aisles. Pallet safety standards seem like a minor issue until you add up how many boots-on-the-ground people handle these awkward and bulky items. Workplace safety requires companies to always mandate best practices and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
What Common Injuries Are Caused by Improper Pallet Handling?
If we focus exclusively on the injuries sustained in warehousing professions alone, employees are reportedly sidelined for 95 million workdays each year. The top causes include materials storage, manual lifting, and handling. Warehouses manage almost every material or product on a pallet. A combination of proper pallet handling policies and safety standards that include appropriate PPE can minimize risk and allow more people to complete their shifts without a trip to the emergency room.
Although many warehouse operations work diligently to provide workers with equipment and PPE designed to minimize injuries, pallets continue to pose a risk. A standard pallet can hold upwards of 4,600 pounds, and they are routinely stacked on top of one another. Just two pallets could conceivably weigh 9,200 pounds. That situation is one of the driving reasons the warehousing sector has seen an increase in fatalities in recent years, and the injury rate averages approximately 4.8 per 100 full-time employees, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Common pallet-related injuries include the following.
- Back Injuries: Although pallet jacks and forklifts typically manage a high percentage of the handling, manual labor remains unavoidable. Individuals too often try to lift pallets and stack them. In other instances, pallets get snagged in warehouse racks, and employees tug them free. Proper pallet handling takes a back seat to what people view as time-efficient labor in these and other scenarios.
- Cuts & Abrasions: Wooden pallets crack and splinter from ongoing use. These sharp, loose fragments often result in deep splinters and cuts to the hands, thighs, and torso. When the nails and metal fasteners embedded in pallets become dislodged, severe wounds can result.
- Slip & Falls: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) indicates that slips and falls rank among the most prevalent workplace injuries year over year. Many of the avoidable injuries result from wet spills and debris. But pallets continue to pose a significant slip and fall risk. Workers routinely walk on top of them, getting footwear lodged between boards or pallets. It’s also not uncommon for aging wooden pallet boards to crack and break under an employee’s weight, causing a fall.
- Broken Bones: Given that an unloaded pallet can weigh up to 70 pounds, falling pallets can cause fractures. The most common bone injury is related to toes and feet when proper pallet handling is not followed.
Perhaps that greatest threat stems from improperly stacked pallets that fall on unsuspecting people. The average pallet stands about 6.5 inches tall, allowing warehouses to stack upwards of 27, 70-pound pallets and still comply with OSHA guidelines. That’s more than 1,800 pounds of force landing on someone because pallet safety standards were not followed.
How Can Supervisors Ensure Pallet Safety Standards Are Followed?
It’s essential to keep in mind pallet safety standards remain the responsibility of hourly-wage workers and salaried supervisors alike. An estimated 1.8 billion pallets are in circulation in the U.S. alone, and upward of 90 percent are constructed from wood. That being said, fast-paced warehouse environments sometimes lead workers to cut safety corners to benefit productivity. These are ways supervisors can remain vigilant about minimizing pallet-related injuries.
- Inspections: Conduct regularly scheduled pallet inspections that identify loosening nails, cracked lumber, and splintering boards. It’s also worthwhile to examine pallets stacked outdoors for nesting wasps, hornets, and rodents.
- Require Low-Stacked Pallets: Space efficiency sometimes leads warehouse personnel to stack pallets to heights of 6 feet or greater. Supervisors would be well-served to lower that height to 4 feet whenever possible and no more than 7 total pallets. It’s also crucial to require pallets to be stacked flat and never leaned up against walls or products.
- Insist on Proper Ergonomics: Whenever workers are tasked with lifting heavy or bulky materials, it’s essential they bend their knees and use appropriate leverage. Requiring team members to pair up and lift pallets together can greatly reduce the risk of lower-back injuries, cuts, and splinters.
- Designate Pallet Areas: It’s all too common for busy workers to slide a pallet in front of a door or forklift pathway while completing a task. Maneuvering pallets in this fashion leads to unnecessary slips and falls as well as the heightened danger of a forklift accident. Placing pallets in front of emergency exits may also result in a safety violation from local officials or OSHA.
- Discard Damaged Pallets: Trying to extend the longevity of pallets increases the risk of accident and injury. Compromised wood or plastic may cause an uneven stack of loaded pallets. Falling pallets can prove fatal. Supervisors are tasked with resisting the notion of reducing company costs and placing a higher value on pallet safety standards.
- Require Workers to Use PPE: Although the front office can set proper pallet handling safety guidelines, it’s up to direct supervisors to enforce policies regarding protective gear. Workers should always wear footwear that protects them from hard impacts, gloves that eliminate splinters and puncture wounds, as well as other disposable personal protective clothing specific to the environment.
At the end of the day, those who take on the responsibility of managing warehouse shifts must always keep one eye on warehouse workplace safety.
Are Increased Pallet Safety Standards Needed in the Retail Sector?
A 2020 academic study published in Science Daily takes an expansive look at pallet usage in retail outlets and their relationship to the worker and public safety. The article, called “After shipping, pallets pose big risk to public, cause many accidents, injuries,” discusses Penn State research that indicates upwards of 30,000 people required emergency room treatment or hospitalization due to pallet-related incidents.
According to the data, people 35-44 years old were most likely to sustain an injury, totaling 5,481 during the five-year study. Approximately 3,000 children and minors suffered an injury and over 4,000 people 65 or older were hurt. Many of the injuries in retail outlets were related to the lower extremities. It’s also critical to keep in mind that retail employees who stock shelves or set up bulk product displays work with pallets on a regular basis.
Articulating pallet safety standards to this portion of the workforce may be particularly necessary because their interactions are less focused on handling pallets. This issue may result in retail workers failing to follow through with safety standards and PPE prevalent in warehouses, trucking, lumber yards, and other landscapes that leverage pallets more frequently.
What PPE Should Workers Wear When Handling Pallets?
Protecting hard-working people from pallet-related injuries does not occur in a vacuum. Settings such as warehouses, truck trailers, lumber yards, and even big-box retail outlets present wide-reaching health and safety risks. That’s largely why PPE use for pallets must be considered in the context of the environment and an expansive understanding of pallet safety standards must be employed. The following suggested PPE usage reflects the long-standing position of OSHA and other safety organizations.
- Safety Gloves: Wood splinters, plastic slivers, and sharp metal (nails, staples) drive many of the avoidable workplace injuries related to pallets. Thick materials that resist penetrations are advisable when lifting and stacking pallets manually.
- Disposable Masks: Warehouses and other environments that maneuver pallets typically kick up dust particles. Given these pallets may be loaded with chemical products or items that produce crystalline silica, disposable masks protect workers from breathing in particles that negatively impact their lungs. Wearing disposable masks is quickly becoming a standard operating procedure in wide-reaching sectors.
- Eye & Ear Protection: Dust particles and chemical agents can also impact the eyes and ears when not protected. Goggles, face shields, and hooded disposable protective clothing offer safeguards against these sometimes-unseen dangers.
- Body Protection: Coveralls rank among the best overall protection against cuts, abrasions, and splinters. When pallets are raised by a pair of workers, it’s not uncommon for torso contact to occur. This type of PPE can reduce injuries, lost work hours, and trips to the emergency room.
The storage and distribution of goods and materials will only increase. That means more pallets are likely to get introduced to workplaces beyond warehouses, transportation, and big-box retail outlets. Workplace safety education and determined policies prove vital in reducing human errors. However, PPE remains a necessary aspect because contact with pallets, loaded materials, and unseen health risks remain part of the landscape. International Enviroguard produces a complete line of PPE that meets or exceeds industry standards for people who work with pallets.