There are many aspects to health and safety in a warehouse environment. Much depends on whether the operation is mechanised, the layout of the shop-floor, the type of goods being managed and whether or not the opportunity exists to design or re-design jobs and processes. This article is about three important aspects of warehouse health and safety; looking after people, designing processes with safety in mind and developing a lasting safety culture.
Good health and safety management, and the safe working practices it produces, helps keep people safe in a warehouse environment. An excellent foundation to the wellbeing of people in their work is ensuring that the design of roles in the warehouse takes account of the psychological needs of individuals, and allows for flexible working, variety of task and location, engagement with others, empowerment and feedback from management and team members. Thoughtful management of these elements reduces stress in individuals and can increase personal productivity.
Young people in the workplace are known to be a high risk group. Giving young people special attention helps generate early safety awareness. An induction process designed with young people in mind will lay the foundations of understanding that safety at work is the responsibility of both the employer and the employee.
Management support of appropriate and timely training programmes, including regular refresher training, is vital in operations health and safety. A “train-the-trainer” approach can save money, and can be very effective as the trainer knows the local safety issues and the team. A good example of the use of this approach is in forklift truck training. The in-house trainer is well placed to assess day to day training needs as she/he is usually part of the local workforce.
Developing and sustaining a healthy work environment and workforce can lead to reduced leaver rates, reduced absenteeism, better motivation and improved productivity. Motivating workers to participate in a workplace health promotion can provide help to people with their diet, exercise regimes and general wellbeing.
Getting people involved relies on the two key elements of finding out what motivates workers best in the firm, and ensuring that engagement is attractive to everyone. This is especially true in a diverse worker population.
How the design of processes and roles can affect warehouse health and safety
If you are fortunate enough to be involved in the design of any aspects of a warehouse operation then you have a fantastic opportunity to design-out as many risks as possible and develop safe working practices in the operation right from the start. Keeping humans and machines apart as much as possible and reducing musculoskeletal disorders, caused by manual handling, should be central goals of the design process.
The manual handling of loads is one of the major causes of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). The amount of manual handling in a warehouse can be reduced by utilising mechanical handling equipment (MHE). Moving goods by conveyor is an excellent way of reducing MSDs and other traffic-induced risks. Although powered conveyors are expensive to purchase and maintain, the benefits in safety and efficiency can be enormous.
Fork-lift trucks (FLT) are another useful form of manual handling equipment, but of course, this type of machinery brings with it another set of serious risks, and their use needs to be tightly managed and controlled. If FLTs can be separated from people to a large degree then the benefits of the equipment in reducing MSDs are excellent.
The design of ergonomic workstations provides in-built protection for people in their daily tasks. This can be accomplished with the input of the operators themselves, or with help from specialist firms. Regular training in this, and in manual handling best practice, will help operators protect themselves against some of the most common injuries in industry.
The physical layout and flow of work can also play into safer activity in a warehouse environment. Reduced numbers of drop and pick-up points and the removal of obstructions on the shop floor mean that workers have less lifting to do and can also see human and MHE traffic more easily. Process redesign and continuous improvement techniques can be used to further enhance the safety of warehouse activities.
There are, of course, many other serious risks associated with the various processes in a warehouse environment, and risk assessments will highlight the areas of an operation requiring special attention. The most common high risk areas involve slips and trips, workplace transport, working at height, electrical safety and the activities of contractors.
As the HSE points out; “If you run a warehouse you can reduce your health and safety risks, and your costs, by concentrating health and safety efforts on the main causes of injury and occupational ill health at your premises.” (HSE, 2007).
The foundations of a lasting health and safety culture
Strong leadership and worker engagement play a critical role in the creation of a safer warehouse operation and a lasting safety culture. Employers are required to consult with their employees, and developing a structured approach to engagement can have many benefits. Risks can be better understood when there are practitioners involved from all levels of an organisation.
Leadership in health and safety is about management behaviours that show clearly that health and safety is a priority and that management is willing and able to get involved. A key signal for staff is the top management creating a written and widely communicated statement of intent to support a rigorous approach to safety.
Worker engagement is key, and this means building a reliable structure of consultation and communication, backed up with support in terms of management time and financial resources. If management is convincing in its support, then a sound foundation is created for the identification and reduction of risks in the workplace.
In addition to the work on reducing risk, the engagement structure should include an assessment piece with regular reviews of progress towards clearly stated health and safety goals. “Working together” is easily said, but it takes true leadership to make it happen. It means working closely with the people who know the jobs best. Regular meetings are required, with actions recorded for appropriate people.
This encourages the right activity and the resolution of prioritised safety issues as quickly as possible. Recorded minutes should be made public and the information easily accessible to the whole workforce. A culturally diverse workforce may need to have records prepared in the appropriate languages.
It is all too easy for a leader-manager to concentrate on other business issues at the expense of engaging on safety matters. There are many benefits of fully engaging with the workforce and union representatives, not least that managers develop a much better understanding of the important issues people have, particularly regarding safety.
If business owners or leader-managers are seen on the shop floor and are available to discuss the problems of the day, issues are able to be acted upon quickly and any tensions defused early. And, of course, this situation makes for a healthier and happier workforce, focused on production rather than personal or group issues with the firm.
Spending time on the shop-floor is a simple way for managers to show that they really care about health and safety in their organisation. There can be few more powerful and positive signals to an employee than that of an owner, or a senior manager, engaging meaningfully with the front-line team on safety matters. The right actions build trust, and trust underpins meaningful engagement. In this way, a positive safety culture can flourish in any organisation.
Summary and conclusions
Keeping health and safety in mind when designing warehouse processes and job roles can help enormously to reduce MSDs and mental health issues in the workforce. Providing appropriate training prepares people, particularly young workers, for the risks in the workplace. Active engagement with workers requires leader-managers to get involved face to face, but the results can be extremely positive.
People want, and deserve, to be kept safe at work and it is the job holders that know the most about the actual risks on the shop-floor. A participative approach to health and safety shows that management is listening, and this can help significantly in the development of a positive and lasting safety culture.
Contains public sector information published by the Health and Safety Executive and licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0
Contains material under Copyright 1998-2013 European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.
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