Understanding Key Safety Regulations for Materials Handling

Understanding Key Safety Regulations for Materials Handling

For most companies—particularly those involved in materials handling—concerns about safety regulations go well beyond mere avoidance of government fines or censure.

Compliance with safety regulations is perpetually top-of-mind for industrial facility managers, and understandably so. After all, noncompliance can lead to unsafe working conditions for employees, costly fines, work stoppages and, in a worst-case scenario, revocation of the licensing and certifications that companies need to conduct business.

Most facility managers know that the benefits of compliance with safety regulations far outweigh the time and costs of implementing those regulations. For most companies—particularly those involved in materials handling—concerns about safety regulations go well beyond mere avoidance of government fines or censure. Today’s executives are constantly looking for guidelines and best practices that will help them increase their plants’ and warehouses’ productivity, energy efficiency and, perhaps most importantly, safety.

In the U.S., the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) covers virtually any physical workplace in the country. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for enforcing these codes. Here are a few of the most widely applicable for materials handling:

OSHA 29 CFR 1910.176: Materials Handling (U.S.)

What it says:


Use of mechanical equipment. Where mechanical handling equipment is used, sufficient safe clearances shall be allowed for aisles, at loading docks, through doorways and wherever turns or passage must be made. Aisles and passageways shall be kept clear and in good repair, with no obstruction across or in aisles that could create a hazard. Permanent aisles and passageways shall be appropriately marked.


Housekeeping. Storage areas shall be kept free from accumulation of materials that constitute hazards from tripping, fire, explosion or pest harborage.


Guarding. Covers and/or guardrails shall be provided to protect personnel from the hazards of open pits, tanks, vats, ditches, etc.

“One of the biggest things a facility can do is just making sure that equipment and product pallets aren’t cluttering up walkways in the facility,” Iowa-based industrial safety professional, Clint Hillary said.

Removing clutter is a first step toward keeping employees safe from congestion, blind spots and unprotected fall hazards. However, an even higher degree of safety can be attained with the right combination of equipment.

For example, inside the loading dock area, red/green dock lights indicate that a trailer is restrained and safe to enter (or, to a truck driver, unrestrained and safe to pull away). While these lights have been standard for some time, they’re not always visible inside, as stacked pallets can obscure a lift driver’s view of them on the control panel.

To solve that issue, an enhancement was developed, with highly visible LED lights placed in the upper corners of dock doors. As a result, forklift operators can see the red/green signal even if the control box lights are obstructed. Additionally, red/green lights can also be placed on the dock leveler, thereby letting forklift operators within the trailer know that it is still safely secured to the loading dock. Other recent innovations include ceiling-mounted control lights for blind corners that can be seen above stacked pallets.

From light communication systems at the loading dock, to light communication systems inside the plant, U.S. safety managers who use this type of equipment will be well prepared to comply with the standards outlined in subparts A and C of CFR 1920.176. To remain compliant with subpart G, guarding equipment, more facilities now go beyond the traditional “stops 10,000 lbs. at 4 mph” industry standard and choosing barrier products to install based on the kinetic energy distance formula, also known as BLAST ratings (for “barrier load and speed testing”).

OSHA 29 CFR 1910.28: Walking-Working Surfaces (U.S.)

What it says:


The employer must ensure that each employee on a dockboard is protected from falling 4 feet (1.2 m) or more to a lower level by a guardrail system or handrails.

The protection of workers—from falling off the edge of an open dock position, as well as into recessed pit areas—should be a priority for facility and safety managers.

Unfortunately, fixed barriers aren’t practical in loading dock areas, as workers need to move across the dock leveler and into a truck’s trailer to load and unload products.

Retractable barriers, which may help prevent forklifts from carrying heavy loads off an edge, are essential to use at the end of loading dock positions, especially when doors are open and trailers aren’t present.

“There’s a big emphasis on Walking-Working Surfaces from OSHA. They retrained everyone in 2017,” Hillary said. “Basically, they want to make sure working areas are clear of hazards and that workers aren’t in danger of being struck by a forklift or falling into pits or recessed areas.”

The loading dock is one of the most dangerous areas of any warehouse, manufacturing facility or processing plant. While a busy loading dock signifies a successful business, the risk of injuries will only increase as forklift traffic rises and more workers attempt to fulfill shipment orders.

Busy loading docks also require equipment that is up to standard for repeated use. A single leveler can expect more than 30 forklift crossings just to load or unload a single shipment. Dock levelers, especially those that don’t offer smooth transitions from the loading dock floor to the trailer floor, can result in lower extremity and lower back injuries to fork truck operators, according to an Ohio State University study.

OSHA 29 CFR 1910.178: Forklift Operations (U.S.)

This regulation mentions that a “dockboard or bridgeplates shall be properly secured before they are driven over. Dockboard or bridgeplates shall be driven over carefully and slowly and their rated capacity never exceeded.” Dock levelers serve as major upgrades to dockboards or bridgeplates, as they are already affixed to the floor. They can typically handle much greater weights as well.

More advanced dock levelers will go beyond the simple task of connecting a trailer to the warehouse. Some dock levelers, for example, have safety features, such as a safety lip that can prevent forklifts from rolling over the edge of an open dock door. Other safety features include constant pressure controls (on vertical-storing levelers) and automatic free-fall protection and strut supports and lockout/tagout capabilities to protect personnel during cleaning and inspection.

OSHA 29 CFR 1910.900: Ergonomics (U.S.)

This new standard contains stringent requirements for most non-construction employers to identify and abate musculoskeletal disorders. The standard identifies five such risk factors, which are defined in terms of “action triggers,” based on the duration of exposure to specified actions or conditions. The risk factors called out in this regulation are:

  • Repetition
  • Force
  • Awkward postures
  • Contact stress
  • Vibration

While written safety protocols are a great starting point, leading facilities will go a step further towards preventing musculoskeletal disorders by installing equipment that reduces heavy repetition, force, awkward postures, contact stress and vibration.

At the loading dock, this entails bridging the gap from the plant floor to the trailer bed with the smoothest path possible. While dockplates and dockboards can transport a forklift operator across this gap, they aren’t going to be as smooth as a dock leveler.

Hydraulic dock levelers typically provide smoother transitions from the facility floor into the trailer than dockplates or manually operated pull chain dock levelers. Leading models are specifically designed to reduce this bumpy “dock shock” sensation at both the rear and tip of the trailer.

ANSI MH28.3: 2009: Elevated Platforms / ANSI 6.4.3: Reciprocating Barriers (U.S.)

The American National Standards Institute’s ANSI MH28.3 and ANSI 6.4.3 mention that any gate that provides an access opening through the guards—for the primary purpose of loading and unloading material onto a work platform—shall be designed in such a way that the elevated surface is actually protected by guards at all times.

To ensure safety and comply with this regulation, a reciprocating barrier is one of the best options, as it allows access to only one side of an elevated work platform. In fact, reciprocating barriers can provide both safety and compliance for racking applications and mezzanines.

Key Takeaways

Safety regulations are constantly evolving as new technology and new applications are developed across the globe. Regardless of industry category, it’s important for facility managers to stay abreast of not only the newest safety standards, but also to be aware of what’s coming down the regulatory pipeline. A number of the regulations are currently phasing in or under review. However, there are many other areas of potential regulatory change that may be further out on the horizon. These include:

  • Drone Delivery. Although Amazon, Google and UPS have already begun using drones, regulation on this “last mile” of the supply chain is still very much in flux, due to safety concerns involving drones and manned aircraft. The FAA has limited these deliveries for now, but that is expected to expand in the near future.
  • Smart PPE. Smart personal protective equipment (PPE) devices are now on the market and employers are using them to monitor workers blood oxygen levels, vital signs and blood alcohol, among other things. Legal issues and legislation related to personal data collection and privacy issues are expected.
  • Supply Chain traceability. New, tighter FDA requirements for pharmaceutical supply chains went into effect November 27, 2019. Look for traceability requirements in all industries to continue ramping up.
  • Industrial Internet of Things. While IIoT technology can reduce headaches for facility managers, it can also create a larger opening for cyber criminals to hack systems and steal intellectual property. Cyber-security issues and regulations will be increasingly significant in coming years.
  • Artificial Intelligence. AI is transforming how humans and machines interact in a shared environment. The availability of data about how people work, what their emotional state is while working and how they engage with equipment and the world around them will likely lead us to a whole new level of industrial safety.

The information herein is provided as a general reference regarding the use of the applicable product(s) in specific applications. This information is provided without warranty. It is your responsibility to ensure that you are using all mentioned products properly in your specific application and in accordance with all laws and regulations.



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

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