As warehouse and logistics operators continue to ramp up to handle the surge in online shopping, mitigating risk becomes ever more critical for a safer workplace, says Paul Roehricht, UK strategic account manager for impact protection specialists, Brandsafe.
UK online retail sales have exploded in the wake of Covid 19, which has left high streets and out-of-town malls bereft of shoppers for months. Indeed, the surge in online sales shows no sign of abating. Sales are expected to grow 19% year-on-year, up from pre-pandemic estimates of 11% – rising from a total of £66bn in 2019 to almost £80bn this year.
Some retail experts expect that 2020 will see domestic e-commerce trade increase in value by as much as £5.3bn. Supermarket supply chains also continue to see surges in demand, placing additional pressure on their distribution and supply chain links. Indeed, this summer online grocery sales grew 92% year-on-year in the four weeks up to 12 July 2020, increasing at a slightly faster pace than the previous four weeks despite the easing of lockdown restrictions, according to research by Kantar.
So, as the UK’s warehouse and logistics industry responds on multiple fronts, realigning operations and investing in additional resources to meet the impact of extra demand, sector operators must work out how to balance the need to protect workers – and limit risk in what can be a hazardous working environment – while maximising productivity.
The volume of people working under one roof to shift and store goods and load / unload vehicles means that warehouses and storage facilities can be particularly risky workplaces. Annually, dozens of injuries are reported to the Health & Safety Executive; so they’re clearly dangerous environments, with hazards and risks ranging from slips and trips to people colliding with equipment, racking, corner sections and walkways.
It also highlights the critical need for workplace safety if incidents and accidents are to be avoided. In addition, protecting people entering / exiting premises during shift changes must be considered if serious harm or injury is to be prevented.
It may be facile to say that safety may sometimes slip under the pressures and strains to realign operations and meet KPIs to accommodate expansion and growth, but under UK law, warehouse operators must observe a duty of care to their workforce. In short, they must identify the health and safety risks each person faces at work – even more so during these current times where additional risk comes as businesses recruit and bring in more resources to meet demand.
A duty of care comes into force when a person or group of people do something that might reasonably harm somebody, which includes the possibility of physical injury. In the context of work, duty of care is legally binding on an employer. Simply put, owners and operators must abide by what the law refers to as a standard of reasonable care, and this applies to any work-related matter where injury can occur.
It’s important that a site risk assessment should be undertaken to identify critical safety issues. If not, and an employer fails to abide by their obligations, an employee may be able to proceed with a claim of negligence if a problem occurs, with all the associated financial penalties, legal costs and reputational damage.
What should be considered best practice when managing workplace risk? Success in managing risks is based on effective assessment: the process of evaluating the risks to workers from hazards to determine appropriate measures to eliminate, or at least reduce the level of incidents/accidents. An assessment should identify the key health and safety priorities within and around the warehouse so that efforts can be concentrated on these important areas.
A thorough risk assessment will involve considering a raft of workplace factors, the dangers they may pose and who might be harmed by them. This work should involve gathering information such as current shift patterns, work arrangements and then evaluating it before an assessment to decide on the most appropriate measures and strategies to cut risk.
For example, wheeled pallet trucks, racks, or trolleys can strike warehouse workers; so designated routes should be established wherever possible and marked by safety barriers and railings that are clearly visible. Here, a risk assessment will also identify what other hazards could be present.
Vehicle movement in and around warehouses requires careful auditing and constant management to prevent accidents. This requires workplace traffic routes that allow pedestrians and vehicles to circulate safely. Where vehicles and pedestrians use the same traffic route, there should be adequate clearance between them and, if possible, complete separation of vehicles and pedestrians.
The racking in aisles must be organised and protected to allow for safe access to goods and movement of FLTs. The aisles should be sufficiently wide, with adequate clearance room overhead. Pedestrians and vehicles must be able to circulate in a safe manner. The areas in which FLTs operate should, if possible, should be clearly separated and marked from the areas where pedestrians are likely to be.
One area where workers can be at particular risk is during shift changes. People rushing to get home at the end of the working day, not looking where they are going or accidently knocking colleagues into rails or pylons in their haste to exit the premises, can all lead to injuries and should be considered as part of any risk audit.
Good practice around managing the health and safety issues to do with shift-work should see employers carry out a suitable assessment of the associated risks as part of an organisation’s overall health and safety management procedure. You should record and review this periodically and whenever changes to working arrangements are considered or made.
As well as a responsibility to the workforce, employers have a responsibility towards visitors, contractors and members of the general public. Everyone needs to be shielded as far as practically possible from accident and injury while on-site, inside and outside of buildings.
Health and safety matters are not irreducible. Continuous improvement should be a given when it comes to safeguarding and protecting people. An effective safety audit coupled with investment in robust and appropriate safety measures goes a long way to mitigating risk. Investment in effective safety has to be seen as good business.