Warehouse employees experience safety challenges when conditions are normal. To protect pickers, packers, and shippers from Covid-19, companies must do more.
Warehouse workers at 450-employee Lindsay Window & Door have been seeing a lot of owner Geoff Roise recently. Two weeks ago, Roise got on a plane to visit three of his company’s five production and distribution facilities around the country. There he met with groups of employees to discuss Lindsay’s commitment to minimizing the Covid-19 threat in their workplaces and his expectations for how they will contribute.
Roise and his manager of HR and safety also periodically make surprise video calls to the sites from Lindsay’s headquarters in North Mankato, Minnesota. “We ask the person on the other end to start walking around so we can check for social distancing,” Roise says.
For a company like Lindsay, these are all sound moves. Business leaders spend more time in their offices than in their warehouses. Consequently, safety practices within cubicles and conference rooms dominate their attention. But warehouses, in many ways, are more challenging than offices to secure against illness. Employees move around a lot. Equipment is shared. There may be multiple entrances. And many hands touch a single product as it travels from shelf to packaging to shipping.
So while all the usual rules apply to protecting warehouses (temperature taking, mask and glove wearing, hand washing, social distancing), companies in the storage and distribution game should also consider these steps.
1. Field an illness-prevention team
Many warehouses deploy cross-functional teams to oversee safety. Similar teams can address Covid-19-related issues, says Travis Kruse, senior director of safety strategy and solutions for the industrial supply company Grainger. Representatives from different parts of the warehouse identify their areas’ exposures: crowding around the conveyor, for example, or the need for extra care when disinfecting battery-recharging stations. They also establish sanitation and social-distancing protocols for employees. Because drivers and delivery people are frequent visitors, Kruse says, “it’s a good strategy to include on your team representatives of the transportation companies involved in delivery.”
2. Limit equipment use
Small-to-midsize companies typically don’t possess huge fleets of forklifts and hydraulic stackers, so several employees may take frequent turns operating them. Kruse suggests limiting each piece of heavy equipment to one operator per day, with thorough disinfecting between uses. That likely reduces opportunities for cross training, which is important for warehouses, where turnover is high. But greater specialization may be necessary to minimize infection.
For less-expensive equipment, such as body harnesses, safety glasses, tapers, and utility knives, warehouse managers may simply want to buy enough so everybody has his or her own. “Box cutters could be individually provided instead of sitting on a table and 10 people grabbing it when they need it,” says Rob Gaines, senior director of health and safety at U.S. Compliance, which helps industrial companies comply with OSHA and environmental regulations.
3. Reduce driver access
Drivers are often accustomed to entering warehouses through multiple entrances. “They may have been servicing your facility for years, and they know their way in and out,” Gaines says. Make sure to position sanitation stations and other control mechanisms at all entrances. Companies should encourage drivers to stay in their trucks–or at least to remain on the building’s perimeter. Gaines suggests installing a dedicated portajohn for drivers outside of the warehouse or near the entrance on the inside. Picnic tables or other furniture on the grounds allow people to take breaks from their cabs in the less-risky outdoors. A dedicated rest area inside the building could serve in bad weather.
4. Avoid crowding along conveyors
Employees who stand along these systems to package products for shipping should be properly distanced using floor tape or some other device, Gaines says. If that’s difficult, he recommends placing inexpensive shields between work positions.
5. Disinfect packages
Companies may want to wipe down or spray packages as they are loaded into trucks, says Kruse, so warehouse owners can communicate to customers that “if it was contaminated, it did not come from us.”
6. Develop training
Just as warehouse employees are trained on safety, they now also must learn best practices for preventing illness. Such training will be “more extensive than for the office because the PPE in a warehouse tends to be more extensive,” Gaines says. The requirements also may be more complex. Warehouse workers already have experience in dealing with physical risks such as forklift collisions, carbon monoxide on the loading dock, and falling items. Now they’ll have to add to that list of concerns. “The biggest risk office workers had prior to Covid-19 was ergonomic injuries,” says Kruse. “People in warehouses already have more of a safety mindset.”
7. Inspect and verify
Companies should conduct frequent inspections to make sure employees adhere to all protocols, and that environmental protections remain in place. “People respect what you inspect,” Gaines says. “Everyone must be held accountable.”