Ministry of Labour to conduct warehouse safety blitz in February. Will you be ready?

Dec 04, 2013

Warehouse safetyIn February 2014 - just over a month from now - Ontario's Ministry of Labour will be inspecting warehouse facilities across Ontario. Workplace Safety & Prevention Services consultant Chuck Leon has advice for workplaces on how to get ready now.

"Every plant and retail outlet has a bit of a warehouse out in the back," notes Leon, "so workplaces in many sectors could be on the ministry's list. But more to the point, all workplaces can benefit from stepping back and taking a look at their prevention efforts. Safe workplaces are more productive workplaces."

According to Leon, inspectors will likely look for compliance with safety requirements in five crucial areas common to warehouse operations:

  • lift trucks
  • cranes
  • conveyors
  • racking systems
  • loading docks.

"Housekeeping is another crucial area," says Leon, "because slips, trips and falls are a primary cause of injuries in Ontario workplaces. They account for almost 20% of the province's lost-time injury claims.

"Inspectors may also be looking at other areas, but these six are key. Ongoing control of hazards related to these areas should be part of any proactive health and safety program."

Read on to find out what information inspectors could ask for, what we've learned from previous warehouse-related blitzes, what previous warehouse-related blitzes can teach employers, and how one warehouse facility has achieved dramatic safety success.

What inspectors could ask for

"Inspectors will ask to see three things whenever they walk through your door," says Leon. This applies to any blitz, not just warehouse safety:

  • preventive maintenance reports
  • inspection reports
  • training requirements.

Be ready

"We tell all our customers that they need to prepare for a ministry visit ahead of time, so have your documentation available beforehand. When inspectors walk into a workplace, the last thing they want is to wait while you're running around collecting documentation.

"If they're looking at a loading dock or racking system," says Leon, "they're going to ask, 'Where are your preventive maintenance records for your lift trucks, your cranes, your conveyors… Show me that you're inspecting them as part of your monthly reporting system.'"

Bring incomplete records up to date

"Having up-to-date and accessible records on all aspects of warehouse safety says to inspectors - and everybody in your workplace - that you take health and safety seriously," continues Leon. "It indicates that people actually know how to operate equipment safely, the equipment is being inspected regularly, and preventive maintenance is being performed as needed.

"If you don't have or can't produce the documentation an inspector asks for, then the inspector's going to start looking around in all the corners, with good reason. This is what blitzes are all about: making sure people are doing what's best for their employees and their business."

What previous warehouse-related blitzes can teach employers

In February and November 2011, the ministry conducted inspection blitzes on loading docks and racking systems, respectively.

Here's what we learned from the loading dock blitz:

  • shipping and receiving areas and related equipment may not be regularly inspected and maintained by employers, since the highest percentage of orders issued was for failing to maintain equipment, materials and protective devices in good condition.

  • key hazards related to material handling activities are often not identified and/or controlled in both indoor and outdoor shipping and receiving areas, since orders for employers to take reasonable precautions in the circumstances were often due to
    • failure to ensure safe vehicle immobilization and securing procedures at loading docks, or
    • generally unsafe loading and unloading activities observed by ministry inspectors.

  • workers are not receiving sufficient information and instruction. Orders for this involved a wide range of indoor and outdoor material handling activities in shipping and receiving areas.

Here's what we learned from the racking blitz: many employers are falling short on

  • ensuring equipment, materials and protective devices are maintained in good condition
  • ensuring materials are stored safely so workers are not endangered
  • providing an engineer's report on load limits for structures, which could lead to collapse if they're overloaded.

For more on these blitzes, see "Additional reading," below.

How to build a sustainable warehouse health & safety system

Consider these four steps, adding to the list where possible to reflect conditions and circumstances in your workplace.

  1. Conduct thorough inspections of these and other essential equipment or components, make all necessary repairs or upgrades, and benchmark the results for future inspections:
    • lift trucks
    • cranes
    • conveyors
    • racking systems
    • loading docks.

  2. Create and implement detailed inspection checklists for ongoing use. "They will help you focus on safety priorities," says Leon. "With racking, for example, the racking systems may have been there longer than the employees who installed them or now use them. A detailed inspection checklist will help bring everyone up to speed on the state of the system by telling you such things as whether any safety pins are missing, or all safety bars are in place and bolted to the floor."

  3. For every inspection, give yourself enough time to do it thoroughly. "In my experience, racking systems, loading docks and conveyors don't always get checked thoroughly enough to truly protect workers and prevent property damage. It all goes back to knowing what to look for."

  4. Train supervisors, maintenance staff, workers, and joint health and safety committee members so they know what to look for. "For instance, most certification training courses don't cover off racking in hazard identification training," warns Leon, "so complement certification training with hazard-specific training."

  5. Check with participating workers or their representatives before making decisions that affect them. "Involving workers is paramount," says Leon. "I've encountered companies that purchase equipment without consulting with employees on what they think is needed. For instance, an employer buys counterbalance lift trucks when he really needs reach trucks, which are better suited to narrow aisles. Six months later the lift trucks and racking system are both showing signs of damage. If the employer had talked to his people, he might have known this."

How one warehouse facility achieved dramatic safety success

As of December 12, HBC's Toronto Logistics Centre will have surpassed 1600 days without a lost-time injury. The centre has 140 employees on two full shifts for nine months of the year, and three shifts for the remaining months. Nine million cartons will pass through the centre in 2013. It receives, processes and ships all goods destined for stores under the Hudson's Bay and Home Outfitters banners, and a specialty wholesale division.

"Associates at the logistics centre operate about 50 pieces of material handling equipment every day," explains Rod Smith, HBC's general manager, distribution east. "The centre has about a mile of automated conveyor, and the work our associates do is very much about lifting bending, cutting, stretching - all of the manual labour that's involved in offloading trucks, processing cartons and reloading onto outbound trailers to our stores."

Under these circumstances, how has the centre sustained its health and safety performance? "It's absolutely the commitment and dedication of the staff that make it happen," says Smith. "They've embraced safety. Even seasonal staff. Because the volume of goods going through the centre fluctuates, seasonal associates account for about 25% of our hours worked. But we have many long-tenure associates, so I think there's a certain amount of coaching and positive peer pressure going on. Everyone's working towards the same goal."

The process began a decade ago when all of HBC's distribution centres created a vision of zero lost time days due to injury. To achieve the vision, the centres integrated safety into day-to-day operations. Among the components:

  • incorporating safety into job descriptions
  • delivering a series of training courses for workers and supervisors so that they would have the knowledge and tools to perform safely
  • establishing rigorous equipment maintenance programs
  • building safety into frequent and varied communications (e.g., daily pre-shift meetings, weekly safety tips, regular reviews of safety incidents)
  • implementing an early and safe return-to-work program

Smith admits that, initially, he had his doubts about whether the distribution centres could achieve their vision. "My thinking was that, because of the nature of the work and our sheer size, the potential for injury was massive. But as the Toronto Logistics Centre started working with staff on the vision, it became evident very quickly that we could achieve it. This taught me a useful lesson: don't set your sights short."

Safety culture and productivity

Smith believes that a resulting sense of cohesiveness and pride among associates in their work has also contributed to remarkable productivity gains. "This facility went through a massive system change three and a half years ago, but the staff of this building just embraced the change and shattered our productivity targets in the process. We're talking double-digit productivity improvements year over year."

The change involved a new warehouse management operating system that altered the way every associate on the floor performed their day-to-day duties. "To accommodate their learning curve, we set a 90-day ramp-up period, at the end of which we expected to be at our previous level of productivity. Instead, we hit our target in less than two weeks, and our productivity has continued growing from there.

"I can't say it enough," says Smith. "It's our associates who have made this happen."

How WSPS can help

Building awareness among workers and supervisors is an important step in creating a health and safety culture. To prepare for the February 2014 warehousing blitz and, more importantly, establish a sustainable health and safety program, Workplace Safety & Prevention Services offers a wealth of resources, including free downloads, self-study, onsite and public classroom training, and consulting services. Here are some examples:

Additional reading