Handling Material Handlers: Training Beyond PIT Requirements

Handling Material Handlers: Training Beyond PIT Requirements

The scope of material handling is broad.

Effective material handling is vital in keeping companies, and the world, moving efficiently. From the arrival of raw goods to completed and shipped final products, employees that handle these items help keep your operation functioning smoothly. Their essentialness to the business can make carving out time to train difficult, since taking them away from their travels can create delays. However, ensuring that even the busiest of employees receive thorough training prevents material handling gridlock. 

Material handling encompasses employees who move, stock, store or deliver materials. It’s often associated with employees who operate powered industrial trucks (PIT), like warehouse operators or shop employees picking up heavy parts. OSHA’s expectations for safe material handling are not limited to PIT operators or warehouse employees. A material handler’s sole job could be using a pallet jack to move pallets manually, or they could perform a combination of tasks such as the following: 

  • Stocking shelves 
  • Loading or unloading pallets 
  • Picking orders (both on and off a PIT) 
  • Preparing products to be shipped 
  • Managing storage and rack systems 
  • Handling or delivering packages 
  • Moving parts from storage to manufacturing 
  • Maintaining inventory 

In the material handling standard, 1910.176, OSHA only addresses the environment in which material handling occurs. Training is not addressed, but how can you ensure employees know the ins and outs of safe material handling? Awareness through training is the answer. Training will help employees focus on getting ahead instead of making unnecessary mistakes that put everyone behind. 

The first half of this standard focuses on aisle and passageways, housekeeping and secure storage, which apply to many work environments. While OSHA does not outline training requirements for these topics, citations can still be issued if hazardous conditions are found. 

When operating mechanical handling equipment, OSHA requires enough clearance for the equipment, such as a forklift, to safely operate around equipment and people. This requirement applies to indoor and outdoor situations. It requires employers to designate permanent lanes of travel for pedestrians and PITs.  

This is a simple requirement, but designated aisles and paths are often considered guidelines and not requirements. Pallets are placed in forklift lanes, and materials are stacked in the pedestrian paths. Materials placed in undesignated areas tighten material handling equipment clearance, reduce visibility, and increase the chance of an accident. 

Training on the importance of staying in these designated aisles does not have to be long or complicated. By explaining why these aisles are needed and providing real-world examples of what can happen if the rules are not followed, your material handlers will be more likely to relate and have the training resonate personally. It’s much easier to take an active part in compliance when there is a solid understanding of why it’s crucial and how it can make a positive difference in their work. 

The benefits of designated aisles and paths include: 

  • Reducing interactions between PITs and pedestrians. 
  • Making travel less stressful. 
  • Ensuring there are no surprises in your lane. 
  • Having more clearance and smoother operations. 

Consider this: What could happen if the maintenance technician put a piece of equipment in the middle of the pedestrian path, near a turn with already limited visibility? Employees may have to leave the designated path to travel around it. PIT operators may not have sufficient clearance to get around the pallet without damaging a nearby wall or rack. What if an employee pops out behind the pallet while the PIT operator is focused on not scraping the wall? In this case everyone involved must be aware of the importance of keeping paths open and clear. 

Housekeeping 

Good housekeeping is the next training topic for material handlers. Working in cluttered environments where a disaster is waiting to happen makes it hard to safely navigate the workplace. Forklifts can slide in oil or water puddles and slam into racks causing significant property damage, or an employee tripping on a broken pallet can be injured resulting in a lost-time incident.  

Often proper housekeeping starts with supervisors. Does your company communicate expectations for housekeeping, or does the expectation vary from supervisor to supervisor? Are certain areas of your facility squeaky clean and others resemble a garbage dump? If that’s the case, developing a written housekeeping program with clear expectations is an excellent place to start.  

Train material handlers on what good housekeeping looks like in your facility and ensure that it’s universally enforced. It’s recommended that the training cover: 

  • Keeping PIT and pedestrian paths clear. 
  • Providing sufficient access to materials. 
  • Showing examples of poor housekeeping. 
  • Hazardous housekeeping conditions. 
  • How to conduct inspections.  
  • How employees can offer suggestions for improvement. 

Storage 

Storing materials safely isn’t limited to warehouse material handlers, it is a concern for all material handlers. Shop and maintenance workers are less likely to have a designated storage location for new equipment when it comes in and may just have to put it somewhere temporarily. Housekeeping and the tool shop should have designated areas to store their materials and equipment. 

Under the material handling standard, OSHA also requires that materials be stored securely and don’t create hazards. This requirement falls in line with the aisleway and housekeeping requirements. If materials are stored haphazardly, they can fall off racks and block aisles or create a mess that needs to be addressed immediately. This regulation can also be used to cite storing materials in excess of a rack’s load capacity. Also, using broken pallets to stack materials can result in the pallets collapsing and causing injury to nearby employees.  

The material storage piece of material handling is broad, but training everyone who handles materials can prevent accidents from the office to the offsite storage building to the warehouse. Be sure the training includes: 

  • Sharing examples of unsafe storage (“What’s wrong with this picture?” is a great discussion tool). 
  • Discussion on what makes storage safe and what can make it unstable (such as uneven pallets, dissimilar items stored together, insufficient or damaged racks and inconsistent stacking practices). 
  • Opportunities for material handlers to share their concerns and ideas for improvement.  
  • How material storage can impact housekeeping or designated aisleways.  

Consider this: Warehouse pickers pull products off of double-stacked pallets of mixed parts on the fifth level of rack rows. The pallets are mixed with lots of varying sizes and numbers of products. Is there a risk of the pallets becoming unstable? 

Designated paths and aisleways, housekeeping and secure storage are all quite intertwined. If one topic suffers, the others will likely follow suit, indicating more significant problems are brewing. By addressing the requirements of these topics and clearly outlining company expectations in a written program, training everyone who handles materials is a breeze.  

Training Tips 

  • Have a written program that helps keep a consistent message. 
  • Use interactive training which can have a more significant impact. 
  • Discuss real-world examples to bring the point closer to home. 
  • Ask for input from employees on what they think. 
  • Practice identifying risky situations. 
  • Train supervisors on equal and uniform enforcement. 
  • Remind workers that that just because it has always been done a certain way does not mean it is right. 

The scope of material handling is broad and covers employees from different industries and jobs, each with unique situations and hazards. By providing comprehensive training for material handlers, they can focus on getting products and materials from point A to B without incident.

This article originally appeared in the September 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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