Distribution centers can be dangerous places. They feature heavy equipment, high activity levels, and fast-paced work. All of these things can elevate potential risks for people working in those facilities. However, when facility managers stay aware of the dangers and continually work to reduce them, the building should become safer. Here are some actionable ways to increase distribution center safety and make the building a better place for everyone to work.
1. Cultivate a safety culture
When people know that safety is a defining part of the distribution center’s culture, they’ll be more likely to follow rules, procedures, and other aspects that collectively result in a safer workplace. Posting signs to remind people how to stay safe is an action that only goes so far if employees constantly see blatant safety violations and notice their colleagues acting carelessly.
Dave Sowers, vice president of Knowledge Vine – a human performance consulting firm – advocates for working to find the root causes of unwanted behaviors rather than focusing on the eventual results. He says the problem with fixating on how to reprimand the employees at fault is that it doesn’t allow for investigating why something happened.
Once safety managers and other leaders take a closer look at what went wrong, they often start to find themes within identified safety issues. Perhaps workers never received details about a company’s procedures for working with a specific machine. Maybe they lack access to personal protective equipment.
One practical way to build and maintain a safety culture is to host frequent informal talks for employees to attend on company time. Create time during each session for people to ask questions about distribution center safety or give relevant feedback. If employees believe workplace leaders care about their input, they’ll be more likely to follow safety rules and encourage their colleagues to follow suit.
2. Update the education methods for safety training
Even when distribution center employees have good intentions, they can still tune out and start to go on autopilot regarding matters of safety. That can be especially dangerous when companies update their processes without all workers participating in the new methods.
Gamification is an emerging method to keep employees more engaged with safety measures. Fitness trackers have made people accustomed to earning points for taking steps or managing their stress. That means most employees would already be familiar with platforms that reward them for doing the right things.
Plus, textbooks, worksheets, and other paper-based materials aren’t the best learning options for everyone. Many people retain information better through increased interactivity. If they can take quizzes, watch videos, and receive personalized learning modules, they may be more likely to recall the details when it matters most.
In another case, researchers examined the option of using a mixed-reality platform to train people to safely use self-propelled mobile elevating work platforms. When writing the associated academic paper, the team argued that this approach enabled multisensory learning in a rich but safe environment free from actual risks.
Elsewhere, Adecco – which specializes in providing temporary employees – launched an effort to train 4,000 forklift drivers and order pickers with virtual reality to teach them essential skills faster and with higher-quality outcomes.
These newer training methods aren’t better in all cases, but distribution center safety managers should consider blending them with more traditional education techniques.
3. Perform a distribution center safety audit
Getting orders to the right places on time requires urgency and conscientiousness throughout the fulfillment process. Relatedly, the facilities that handle outgoing orders need adequate staff numbers and specific pieces of equipment to ensure productive and trouble-free operations.
Performing a safety audit can be a great way to uncover areas of the facility that require more attention and confirm which workplace aspects are already sufficiently safe. A good starting point is to break down the potential hazards into categories. These could include:
Ergonomic: Causing physiological and psychological stress to workers, potentially through tasks such as bending, twisting, reaching, and doing repetitive motions under intensive time pressure.
Physical: Subjecting employees to threats associated with extreme temperatures, loud noises, vibrations, and electrical shocks.
Biological: Introducing threats related to viruses, bacteria, and toxic chemicals.
Mental and emotional: Requiring people to do tasks or remain in a work environment that raises the risk of depression, violence, or excessive stress.
It’s also useful to take an equipment inventory during a safety audit. Besides compiling details about every asset in the facility, people should verify that maintenance is up to date. One easy way to do that is to deploy sensors that track real-time data and send it to the cloud for further analysis.
A safety audit will inevitably uncover some areas for improvement, but that’s a good thing. After all, you can’t fix problems without first knowing they exist. Be sure to get employees’ feedback on safety risks they’ve seen. Their daily distribution center work makes them well-positioned to notice things managers may not.
4. Look for opportunities to prioritize growth
Even when companies have numerous distribution center safety procedures established, accidents can show glaring shortcomings in those practices. Consider the 2021 storm-triggered collapse of an Amazon distribution center in Illinois. That event killed six employees and made the company change its safety measures.
Kelly Nantel, Amazon’s director of global media relations, said employees now go through two emergency drills per quarter and during different shifts. Previously, workers only did one each quarter.
The company also hired a meteorologist, allowing it to go from merely monitoring the weather to forecasting it. Nantel gave examples of how that change enabled the company to proactively close warehouses that were in the path of hurricanes in Florida.
Another enhancement in distribution center safety came with the nationwide deployment of cards that hang on workers’ lanyards. Any short-term visitors, including delivery drivers, also get the cards. Each one contains a facility map and instructions about how to behave during and after severe weather or other emergencies.
The unfortunate thing is that it took a tragedy for Amazon to implement these changes. The ideal approach is for people to be proactive enough to spot shortcomings and address them before catastrophes occur. When that doesn’t happen, people can do the next best thing by recognizing issues and taking decisive action to rectify them.
Distribution center safety must be an ongoing concern
Sometimes, people seem to care most about making distribution centers safer after an incident happens or regulators take issue with a failure to meet minimum standards. However, it’s far better to treat safety as a central part of everyday operations and look for ways to improve even when it seems everything’s going well.
One option is to hire an outside company that can send in auditors to evaluate the facility. It’s often challenging for the people who work at a distribution center every day to see its weaknesses. That’s why having outside professionals come in can reveal previously unnoticed flaws.
Frequent chats with employees are also great for reminding them of safety measures, discussing potentially risky behaviors, and praising them for following procedures. When people see you take safety seriously, they’re more likely to make it a part of every workday and resist engaging in actions that could endanger themselves or others.