Protective Guard Rail: What It Is and Why You Need It

Protective Guard Rail: What It Is and Why You Need It

Guard rail is one of those components in a facility that typically is not top-of-mind with companies until it’s too late.

What do people think when they hear the term “guard rail”? Is it something on an elevated platform that prevents people from falling? Is it that low-profile metal strip that runs along the freeway? Or maybe nothing significant comes to mind? Unfortunately, the latter is often the case, especially when talking about guard rail in an industrial setting. Guard rail is one of those components in a facility that typically is not top-of-mind with companies until it’s too late. Soft federal guidelines for its use have helped contribute to its low awareness within facilities and have placed the responsibilities on individual companies to implement. However, when used properly, it can effectively protect equipment, assets and personnel in and around a facility. The key is to identify areas in need of guard rail, correctly specify it for the application and take action.

Why Guard Rail?

While an industrial guard rail protects machinery and provides a safe and efficient work environment, its most important role is protecting people. Forklifts, Tugger AGVs and other material handling vehicles are commonplace in manufacturing facilities and often operate near employees. Sometimes their paths do cross...with deadly results. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 2011 to 2017, 614 workers lost their lives in forklift related incidents and more than 7,000 nonfatal injuries with days away from work occurred every year.

How do forklift accidents happen? OSHA reports that most accidents could have been prevented with better operator training. Still, it is easy to see how an accident can occur. Many manufacturing facilities have tight lanes for forklift traffic. If a turn is not executed properly, the wheels or forks could sway into a designated “safe area” occupied by employees or equipment. Place an inexperienced driver behind a forklift and the risks increase. Well-positioned guard rail can help reduce the chance of accidents by preventing forklifts and other vehicles from straying into dangerous or off-limits areas.

While there are OSHA guidelines regulating the use of handrails and other safety guarding in facilities for structures such as stairs, mezzanines, temporary manhole covers, etc., there is no direct guidance for the use of guard rail around machinery or designated vehicle travel paths. As such, many facilities simply mark the floor for off-limit areas, travel paths and pedestrian walkways with yellow-striped tape—which provides absolutely no protection against vehicle impact. What happens if the forklift driver experiences a medical issue, such as a heart attack or is inattentive to his surroundings due to texting on his/her cell phone? A yellow piece of tape will certainly not stop an out-of-control forklift.

Differences in Guard Rail

Although it may look similar in appearance, not all guard rails are manufactured the same. Many manufacturers build their guarding products to have impact ratings of 10,000 pounds at 4 mph. An average forklift with a load generally weighs between 8,000 to 10,000 pounds. A guard rail with a 10,000-pound impact rating means it should prevent a forklift from driving through it at a speed of 4 mph or less. The goal of an industrial guard rail is to maintain its integrity and deflect an impact. In contrast, a highway guard rail is designed to absorb and disperse an impact, which is why at an accident scene that type of guarding system is typically crumpled up.

But not all industrial guard rails come with only a 10,000-pound impact rating. Some manufacturers build it to a stronger 13,000-pound impact rating. The added value that a higher-rated guard rail brings to a facility is an increased level of safety for people and equipment. Clearly, a higher-rated product will withstand a more severe impact.

Furthermore, a 13,000-pound impact-rated guard rail has a lower deflection rate than a 10,000-pound impact-rated guard rail. For example, when a forklift truck traveling at 4 mph strikes a 10,000-pound impact-rated guard rail, it can deflect (or push back) up to 12 to 15 inches. When that same forklift strikes a 13,000-pound impact-rated guard rail, it typically deflects only 10 inches or less. A few inches may not seem that great, but in facilities and distribution centers where space is often at a premium, those few inches mean that equipment and fixtures will be protected, and additional manufacturing or storage space can be obtained.

It is important to check the impact rating on any guarding system purchased. That is because some manufacturers do not list an impact rating for their guard rail at all. The likely reason is that it was never tested, or it failed an impact test and they did not want to spend the time, money or resources to redesign it. Instead, they go to market with a product that is not rated. These are products to avoid because their impact rating is not known and, as a result, your facility’s safety may be at risk.

Building a 13,000-Pound Impact Rated Guard Rail

The way some suppliers achieve a 13,000-pound impact rating is found in their manufacturing processes. The best material to use is corrugated 11-gauge steel for the rail. In the manufacturing process, strength is gained in part by hemming the top and bottom portion of the rail sections. This step not only provides added strength but also smooths out any rough edges to enhance employee safety. Many manufacturers do not hem the rails and simply add a plastic strip to cover up rough edges. That strip may fall off over time. Strength is also added by using heavy-duty columns and base plates. Avoid guard rail with weaker columns measuring only 4 inches x 4 inches, or base plates that measure only 10 inches x 10 inches with a thickness of only one half of an inch. Lighter materials may reduce the manufacturer’s cost, but it may also lower your level of protection. When assembled, rails should be bolted to the inside of the column, not to the front. Some manufacturers have designed their guard rails to bolt to the front of each column, exposing sharp jagged edges.

Changing Perceptions

A manufacturer can design and build the best guard rail in the world, but what good does it serve if it is not being used (as is often the case)? A guard rail is mistakenly viewed as a commodity item that people historically do not think much about for their facility. They have never had personnel injured or equipment damaged because of a vehicle accident, and so this protective equipment is not given too much thought. Of course, once an accident occurs, facility managers quickly see the value that it can provide. However, the importance of installing guarding solutions to protect people and equipment prior to an accident seems to be resonating with companies. Sales of protective guard rail are on the rise. Companies interested in maintaining a healthy bottom line see the value of investments in products that protect and maintain the equipment they have. A guard rail is a relatively inexpensive way to provide that protection.

In a facility with equipment that can sometimes be valued at more than a million dollars, properly protecting it with durable guarding systems that may cost just a few thousand dollars is a smart way to protect that investment. Think of a guard rail as insurance for your facility and equipment and the products it produces. How much money will it cost your company if production stops for a day or more due to damage inflicted by a forklift accident? And what is the cost to cover workman’s compensation or a lawsuit in the event of an injury or death? Installing a relatively inexpensive, quality guarding system can prevent those types of accidents and provide peace of mind knowing that equipment and personnel are protected from harm every day.


This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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