Distribution warehouses are potentially dangerous workplaces. Storing chemicals, moving products and operating heavy machinery are just some of the day-to-day operations that can lead to accidents and worker injuries.

Distributors need to focus on educating their employees regarding how to avoid common accidents and injuries.

The most common warehouse injury, say distributors, is a back injury as a result of improper lifting.

“Manual lifting is an everyday, all-day-long task for our warehouse employees, so back strain is one of the most common injuries we have,” says Ken Morris, director of safety programs for Dade Paper in Miami. “We see a lot of these injuries when someone is in a hurry and doesn’t employ proper lifting techniques.”

Dade Paper conducts training sessions on proper body mechanics several times a year.

“We stress not reaching and turning at the same time,” says Morris. “We also give warehouse workers tools — a stick or hook — to move boxes toward the front of the rack.”

Like Dade Paper, Kalamazoo, Mich.-based KSS Enterprises reviews safe lifting techniques several times a year.

“It’s easy to fall into bad habits again so I periodically review this with my team,” says Todd Bentley, operations manager for KSS. “[The literature] talks about lifting with your legs vs. lifting with your back. That’s particularly important when leaning over warehouse racking and front stocking.”

While forklift accidents are less common than back injuries, distributors emphasize the importance of training employees to operate a forklift safely and being aware of what’s going on around them at all times.

“We train our new employees within three days,” says Bart Cash, director of operations for Brame Specialty Co., Durham, N.C. “They watch a video, take a written test, test-drive the vehicle, and then they get a forklift card.”

New hires ride shotgun with an established driver for a few days, and then are evaluated. Drivers are also instructed that if the forklift starts to turn over for any reason to stay inside.

“It’s not a natural thing to want to do, but it’s safer,” says Cash.

Initial training is just the beginning. Inspecting equipment before use at the start of each shift is also critical.

“Everyone in the warehouse knows how to inspect the equipment, and they go through a 10-minute inspection before they use it,” says Bentley. “We also keep logs in our warehouse for every piece of equipment, demonstrating that it has been inspected at the beginning of every single shift.”

Bentley also promotes an understanding of the forklifts’ load capabilities.

“All forklifts have different weight rankings,” he explains. “We make sure employees understand that the higher and heavier a load is, the more unstable the forklift is. So we always tell our staff to keep loads very low and close to the ground.”

Wearing Proper Safety Gear

In addition to handling heavy loads, warehouse workers are also handling potentially dangerous cleaning chemicals. Employees undergo hazard awareness training so that they know how to respond in the event of a chemical spill. Cash recommends his workers immediately contact a warehouse manager.

Morris requires his employees to read the MSDS prior to handling a potentially hazardous chemical.

“These guys need to know how to react if they encounter a spill or if a product is leaking,” he says.

Dade Paper’s hazard awareness training also stresses how to handle boxes of potentially dangerous chemicals as well as how to check the exterior of the carton to identify hazardous materials prior to moving them.

Employees should also know what type of safety gear to wear when cleaning up a spill, where that gear is located, and what to do if a potentially dangerous chemical comes in contact with their eyes or skin. KSS Enterprises, for example, has emergency eyewash stations strategically placed throughout the warehouse.

“Everybody is trained on the proper use of those,” says Bentley, “and we have hand eyewash bottles placed in the warehouse as well.”

But safety gear is not only for emergencies. Warehouse employees are encouraged to wear safety gear on a daily basis to avoid common injuries from falling objects, box cutters, exposed nails, etc. Some distributors require employees to wear steel-toed boots in the warehouse. Other safety gear, such as gloves and eye glasses, is often optional. Cash encourages his employees to wear safety belts or weight belts only when lifting.

Dade Paper recently outfitted all warehouse employees with high-visibility vests, and feedback has been positive.

“That bright color in their peripheral vision gives them that split-second warning that they might not have had before,” says Morris.

Kassandra Kania is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C. She is a frequent contributor to Sanitary Maintenance.