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December 4, 2015

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5 steps towards warehouse health and safety

Nigel Crunden, a business specialist at Office Depot, looks at how retail warehouses often have to go over and above compliance, to help staff cope with accelerating pressures in the industry.

Recent news reports have suggested that contract employees at the headquarters of a major retailer were so afraid to take time off work that 80 ambulances were called to the company’s UK headquarters over a two year period – a staggering amount for any firm but especially a retailer.

In a statement, the company claimed to provide working conditions in compliance with applicable employment and health and safety legislation – and I have no doubt that this is the case. However, compliance is not necessarily enough, especially where warehouse operations are concerned. So with Christmas just around the corner and online purchases peaking, how can warehouses safely manage accelerating pressure on all permanent and contract staff and on operations?

Clearly, turning a blind eye to potential safety risks and failing to encourage and maintain safe behaviour among contract staff could lead to serious harm or injury. But the real danger lies in seeing safety management as a ‘tick in the box’ that doesn’t need to be revisited or revised, especially during busy periods.

Step one – make the ticks count

Step one, therefore, is to make best practice routine and inductions thorough. Make those ‘ticks in the boxes’ count. This means creating procedures that go above and beyond statutory requirements and that are bespoke to the working environment, equipment and the person carrying out a task, especially if they are contract staff or if English isn’t their first language. By developing and introducing this type of holistic approach during quieter times, following best practice becomes automatic when times get more hectic. This includes strictly following rules. For example, the operation of vehicles like forklift trucks should only involve trained and accredited operatives who are regularly assessed, with absolutely no exceptions. Advice about accreditation can be obtained from the Accrediting Bodies Association for Workplace Transport which has recently taken over the Health and Safety Executive’s responsibilities in this area.

Step two – use technology

Next is to make the best use of the technology available. Not every warehouse will have the ability to invest in everything, but where investment in health and safety is available, it’s worth looking at how the latest developments can make operations and health and safety monitoring easier and less prone to human error. For example, many large warehouse operations now routinely use technology that monitors the movements of operatives, continually assessing their posture and identifying where additional lifting training might be needed – useful for contract staff where their training history may be sketchy.

Step three – learn from near misses

Step three is to be strict about reporting. Health and safety is continually evolving and although most scenarios can be anticipated, in a warehouse environment it is likely that at some point an incident will occur despite the most rigorous health and safety procedures being in place. Near miss reporting allows managers, employees and health and safety experts to assess how a process or working practice needs to change in order to reduce or eliminate the risk in the future. Near miss reporting can also highlight teams or areas of operation that are perhaps not following procedures correctly.

Step four – the importance of PPE

Step four is an obvious one. While it’s always better to remove a risk than rely on equipment such as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to protect workers from a risk, make sure suitable PPE is issued to all staff that could benefit from it. Also, where possible, trial any proposed changes to PPE and find out the views of the employees who will wear it and establish if it is suitable for the task undertaken.

Step five – open the lines of communication

Finally, following on from the collaborative approach suggested above, consider regular safety improvement groups to address health and safety matters. Involving all staff – permanent and contract, management and safety representatives – is a great way to encourage this.  Managers can also facilitate discussions by encouraging teams to meet in ‘huddles’ before each shift begins. If contract staff have any health and safety concerns, they can raise them in this forum, allowing management to review existing procedures and make changes if necessary. A more informal setting such as this allows individuals to be more open about sharing any issues they have. Rather than ‘blowing the whistle on colleagues’ or being frightened to raise things formally, management can steer the discussions in a non-threatening manner.

The overriding message is that safety doesn’t stand still. There is always room for processes and procedures to be improved to safeguard employees and create an efficient and safe warehouse operation during especially busy periods such as Christmas. Creating a culture of health and safety adherence and ensuring staff welfare is prioritised is a must, not only if a business is to preserve the health of its workforce and its reputation, but also to ensure that warehouse operations run as efficiently as possible. Put simply, good safety is good business.

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Nigel Crunden is a business specialist at Office Depot.

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