Safe Pallet and Material Handling

During inspection of pallet manufacturing and warehousing facilities, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) focuses on many potential common safety and health hazards, including noise, wood dust, and machine guarding. But another area that can be a source of citations – with maximum penalties now set at $129,336 – is materials storage and handling. In a 2015 warehouse accident, where three workers were hospitalized, 30 pallets holding glass drinks collapsed on the employees, the company was fined over $100,000 and was placed in OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program.

Employers can face citations alleging that empty pallets are stacked too high, or are unstable, or that forklift operators are not handling them safely as they are moved around the plant or yard. If a pallet is damaged and spills materials on the floor, this can create a slip/trip/fall hazard for anyone in proximity. Lumber storage on site may also be subject to such scrutiny about storage arrangements, although that is covered under a different standard, 1910.265.

Of course, fire safety must be factored into the storage of pallets as well, and compliance with the revised 2018 International Fire Code (IFC) Section 2810, and 2017 edition of NFPA 1, Section 34.10.4, is a must. Fire safety codes for storage of pallets will be enforced both by OSHA (through its fire safety standards or the General Duty Clause) as well as by local building code enforcement officials. The National Wooden Pallet & Container Association NWPCA has a compliance manual explaining the new consensus standards, available for free download .

In terms of OSHA regulations on materials handling, the general industry rule is codified at 29 CFR 1910.176, but that rule (most recently amended in 1978) is quite vague in terms of providing any bright line specifications. In recent cases I have handled in the pallet sector, the inspector’s allegations basically came down to “it didn’t look safe to me” rather than benchmarking work practices against any particular standard. Those types of citations, absent an accident, are often relatively easy to have vacated or reduced to “other than serious.”

Section 1910.176 requires that when mechanical handling equipment is used to move pallet stacks or other materials, sufficient safe clearances must be allowed for aisles, at loading docks, through doorways and wherever turns or passage must be made. Aisles and passageways should be kept clear and in good repair, with no obstructions across them to create a hazard, and permanent aisles should be appropriately marked.

OSHA also specifies in this standard: “Storage of material shall not create a hazard. Bags, containers, bundles, etc., stored in tiers shall be stacked, blocked, interlocked and limited in height so that they are stable and secure against sliding or collapse.” This is a broad obligation that requires an assessment regularly by the employer to ensure that a constantly changing work environment has not had unsafe conditions arise during a workshift. For those who might do work at or deliver to marine terminals, a separate but similar rule is in effect. Standard 1917.14 provides: “Cargo, pallets and other materials stored in tiers shall be stacked in such a manner as to provide stability against sliding and collapse.”

On construction sites, yet another set of standards applies to material storage and handling. Standard 1926.250(a), for example, specifies that “All materials stored in tiers shall be stacked, racked, blocked, interlocked or otherwise secured to prevent sliding, falling, or collapse.” It adds, in an interpretative letter from 2008, that shrink-wrapping or banding the bricks or blocks and stacking the palleted units in a manner that is adequate for flatbed shipping typically would qualify as “otherwise secured to prevent sliding, falling, or collapse.”

OSHA applies these rules to all types of materials, and all types of pallets: wooden, plastic and corrugated cardboard. About 90 percent of the market remains wooden pallets and while there have been attempts in the past to influence governmental agencies in favor of other types, these have not been successful. In the early 2000s, OSHA was urged (first, when developing its ill-fated ergonomics standard, and later when developing ergonomic guidance) to mandate use of plastic pallets but it declined to include such directives.

Similarly, an Oregon initiative to require cardboard pallet use was put to study by the state Department of Corrections (DOC) and its 2017 report concluded that this was not feasible for a number of reasons. The non-safety issues included lack of availability for the loads needed (one vendor out of the U.S. was found for the test project), and concerns about inclusion of recycled plastic in the paper pallets, which complicated recycling efforts. Most of these cardboard pallets are single use, with a larger carbon footprint environmentally than their wooden counterparts.
But safety problems with corrugated cardboard pallets were the key issues.

The study found that these types of pallets cannot be safely used in refrigerators or freezers for extended periods because the cold temperatures adversely impact the adhesives used, and can cause condensation. Paper and water do not mix well, especially when the paper is expected to support heavy loads ranging from 1,000 – 4,000 lbs. per pallet! These safety/stability issues are not present when wooden pallets must be stored in wet conditions or outside for extended periods.

The Oregon DOC report also found that loaded cardboard pallets ripped apart when moved to staging areas, and even crumbled when being picked up to load onto trucks. When a load failure could occur at any time, this greatly increases the exposure of workers in proximity to the load (as well as the forklift or pallet jack operator) to crushing hazards from the collapse of material. The DOC found this pallet design was not compatible with conventional racking systems, and replacement blocks were frequently needed to address damaged cardboard pallets during transit, which slowed down delivery (and again brought workers into additional exposure to stacked loads).

Finally, this pallet design would require retrofitting or replacement of many pallet jacks already in use in the facilities, which would trigger retraining requirements for the operators of this equipment under OSHA standards.

OSHA does offer a number of tools to help employers train workers to manage material handling and storage in a safe and efficient manner. Most of these relate back to the agency’s Powered Industrial Truck standard, 1910.178. The main hazards to be avoided when stacking pallets or other loads are falling materials/loads, off center loads, damaged or loose loads, overloading of equipment, and tipover of the forklift. OSHA emphasizes that damaged merchandise should not be moved unless it has been secured by wrapping or banding. If an off-center load cannot be centered, the heaviest part of the load should be nearest the front wheels of the forklift for greater stability.

OSHA urges employers to adopt the following rules:
• Only stable or safety arranged loads shall be handled. Caution shall be exercised when handling off-center loads which cannot be centered.
• Only loads within the rated capacity of the truck shall be handled. This means operators must know both the weight of the load (in advance) and also the operational limits of their assigned equipment.
• The long or high loads which may affect capacity shall be adjusted.
• Trucks equipped with attachment must be operated as partially loaded trucks when not handling a load.
• A load engaging means must be placed under the load as far as possible, and the mast shall be carefully tilted backward to stabilize the load.
• Extreme care must be used when tilting a load forward or backward, particularly when high-tiering.
• Move forks as far apart as the load will permit, and be sure the load is centered and the forks are completely under the load before lifting.

When lifting loads, workers must have situational awareness for things like insufficient clearance, falling load potential, and stuck loads. It is also a good practice to inspect floors regularly and to replace any bad areas quickly to avoid potentially destabilizing industrial trucks. When lowering loads, the same potential for falling materials exists, and operators should avoid striking objects (or people) as they maneuver the load downward. High tiering can trigger tipovers, so the heaviest loads should be set on the bottom tier of racking systems, with the lightest loads at the top tiers.

Conventional rack storage systems are designed for the counterbalanced lift truck, which requires about a 12-foot aisle width. If a warehouse has a “narrow aisle” storage space, it will require the use of reach trucks and order pickers to operate in this environment. This means additional worker training would be required, as well as the use of personal fall protection equipment on the elevated platforms of powered industrial trucks.

OSHA has additional specifications when moving pallets into truck trailers or railcars. The 2016 “walking/working surfaces” rule has a specific section with detailed requirements for the use of dockboards (1910.30) and they must have handholds, or other means to permit safe handling. Truck wheels must be chocked while dockboards are in place, and railcars must have positive protection to prevent them from moving while a dockboard is in position.

Finally, OSHA reminds employers that workers must inspect the floors of truck trailers before loading pallets or other cargo to make sure that they can support the forklift and the load, and ensure that the height of the entry door is adequate to clear the height of the vehicle and its load. In determining capacity, consider factors including floor thickness and cross-member spacing, or unsupported floor areas.

For more information on safe pallet handling and storage, visit the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association.

Originally published on Modern Materials Handling