The material handling industry is currently undergoing many changes, e-commerce is booming, facilities are growing and robots and AGVs are working alongside humans. Safety needs in these facilities remain constant, as employees continue to work on elevated platforms to move palletized material.
As a company that specializes in keeping employees safe on the job, Mezzanine Safeti-Gates, Inc. has been steeped in safety for over 30 years. We asked our President, Aaron Conway, a few questions about the state of the industry.
Q: Everyone knows they need to create a safe work environment so why is it so hard to actually do it?
A: It’s true that every company knows they need to create the safest environment possible, and most target a zero injury culture. These companies get it; they also dedicate a lot of resources to achieve this goal. They hire safety professionals, hold safety meetings and invest in safety products.
The problem is operations are always changing as companies try to stay competitive in their individual markets. The material handling systems designed to implement these changes are complicated and are constantly being improved or replaced. So it is very important to stay on top of the changes inside the facility and to be vigilant about spotting potential hazards before they become issues.
Here are a few examples of changes that are made pretty often in facilities. Did you recently install a mezzanine to maximize the cubic space in the building? If so, are you properly guarding the pallet drop area with a dual-gate system? Did you install a new hopper or reactor on your production platform? Do you have proper safety guarding in place to keep the operators safe while they pick from the pallet? Sometimes you can recognize these hazards just by actually watching the new process taking place; other times you need to consult a company that specializes in the type of guarding solutions that you need to install. Either way, you have to stay focused and continuously observe what is going on around you.
Q: How do the successful companies keep these areas safe?
A: I can tell fairly quickly when I visit a facility whether or not it is going to succeed in its goal of creating a safe environment. The facility provides obvious clues from the safety guarding that has been implemented in the past and the environment they are currently working in. You can also learn a lot from the interactions between the various divisions inside the company. The production teams have their own concerns regarding the efficiency of the operation, the safety teams have concern for the well being of the employees, and the corporate team is concerned with the costs. How these parties get along is imperative to the successful implementation of a safe, efficient, and profitable facility.
The companies with teams that discuss issues and work together succeed; the companies where these factions are unable to get along fail. For example, say a company decides to replace its old wooden guardrail and the latch chains around their pallet drop areas. The safety team wants steel railings and dual-gate pallet drop systems; the operations team wants any safety system to be power operated so the lift truck can control them and to rearrange the platform to make it more efficient. As long as all parties are involved from the beginning, it will most likely be a success.
Q: What has been the most challenging job that the company has undertaken since you’ve come on board?
A: This past year we had a very large chemical company in the Northeast reach out to us because they were looking to make their pallet drop areas safe. The facility consisted of multiple buildings, each with several mezzanines that had been built and added onto over the past 40 years. The challenge was not only the number of areas they were looking to secure, but the fact that each area had different requirements in terms of the available space, the size of the pallets being delivered and the process for the material moving through the area.
The company did several steps right. They recognized they had a problem, got a professional company involved to assist them, and got the various parties inside the company to understand what they were attempting to do and why. It was a challenge, as we custom designed solutions for each area to make everything safe without impeding on production, but the challenge made the end result more rewarding,.
Q: Can you tell us about any trends you are seeing in material handling operations?
A: Systems are getting larger and more complex, and there is more automation. These scenarios are increasing the potential hazards in the facility and require specific safety solutions. Larger systems mean that people are working on higher elevations where a fall could now result in a fatality instead of an injury. The systems are getting more complex, meaning there is more motion, noise, lights, and distractions for employees working in the systems, which can all lead to incidents. Increased automation means there are more mechanized movements from AGV’s, robots or machines, and because employees have to work around these machines, more opportunities for danger.
Q: Any insights into the future of industrial safety?
A: I see safety becoming even more paramount in industrial facilities. As the systems grow more complex, the guarding solutions will be more innovative than ever before. Yes, there will be fewer workers performing repetitive dangerous tasks, due to increased automation. But employees will continue to working in the facility and their safety will become one of the top priorities of the company. The potential for serious injury will still exist and the ramifications for not creating a secure environment will become more severe. The potential loss of income, the facility being forced to shut down, or reputation of being an unsafe workplace will become too serious of an issue not to prevent.