In the never-ending quest to boost productivity in the warehouse and DC, it's becoming even more important to focus on the care and maintenance of a crucial piece of equipment: industrial storage racks. Experts agree that storage rack safety is gaining more attention industrywide these days, and they say it's vital to develop a proper maintenance and inspection program. After all, weak or damaged racks can contribute to collapse, risking worker safety and causing product damage. Keeping storage racks in prime condition should be a top priority, experts advise.
"I believe [storage rack safety] is becoming more and more important to operators of the warehouse," says Dan Clapp, director of engineering for New Jersey-based storage rack manufacturer Frazier Industrial Co. and a 25-year member of the Rack Manufacturers Institute (RMI), a trade group that promotes the safe design and use of storage racks and other structural systems. "Storage racks are what I call very high-performance structures. A storage rack will typically have one pound of steel supporting 10 pounds of product. We ask the material to do a whole lot of work, [so] the monitoring and the repair is vitally important to the structure."
To stay on top of the issue, Clapp and others recommend that warehouse and DC managers pay close attention to their facility's layout and daily use requirements, adhere to a regular inspection schedule, and take quick action to repair or replace weak or damaged storage racks.
DESIGNED FOR SAFETY
The best storage rack systems are configured to allow enough room for workers and lift trucks to move about the facility and access products safely and easily. Clapp recommends that companies work closely with their rack supplier or systems integrator when designing a facility or adding storage racks—and that they resist the urge to get "every last inch" of storage space out of the facility. Providing a little extra clearance around pallets and in the aisles can make it easier for workers to access products and reduces the risk of accidents, he explains.
"I suggest they consider opening up the clearances," he says, comparing warehouse aisles with roads and highways: wider lanes are easier to navigate than a narrow maze of pathways. "Develop a layout on the basis of clearances required around the loads—and be generous with the clearances. You will gain a tremendous amount of productivity that way."
Damage to storage racks is almost always related to misuse and abuse, and forklifts are most often the culprits, adds Tom Wagner, a regional manager with New Jersey-based storage solutions provider Unex Manufacturing. Industrial steel storage racks are designed to last for years if properly installed and maintained, he says.
"It's hard to damage them through normal wear and tear," Wagner explains. "If it's not getting hit, it's not going to wear out like a piece of machinery would. Abuse and misuse is where the need [to] replace and repair comes in."
In addition to developing a sensible layout and making sure the equipment is properly installed, Wagner emphasizes the need for regular monitoring for rack damage and ensuring that safety devices, such as pins and bolts that reinforce connection points, are in place and secured.
"So many places you go in, those are missing or gone," he explains, adding that such items cost little to replace when compared with the cost of product loss or worker injury due to a rack collapse, which can be catastrophic.
"It looks like dominoes when it goes," Wagner says of a rack failure.
GUIDELINES FOR INSPECTION
Storage racks should be inspected at least once a year, Clapp and others say—and possibly more frequently, depending on how quickly the inventory is turned. Continuous observation and assessment should be a part of every maintenance plan as well. Experts say warehouse employees should be on the lookout for damage as well as wear and tear when working around storage racks, and forklift drivers should report any impacts right away.
Thomas Gibbs, founder of Bolingbrook, Ill.-based independent pallet rack inspection company United Rack Services, agrees.
"The more the product is cycled, the more often [racking] should be inspected," explains Gibbs, whose company conducts storage rack safety inspections and training at warehouses throughout North America. "An archival storage facility, for example, where they put [product] into the racking and hardly ever pull it, will require [less-frequent inspections]. But a grocery distributor, where they are constantly turning over product, should [inspect its racks] more often."
That's because more-frequent use can increase wear and tear and lead to more accidents, especially fork truck collisions. Harsh environments, such as pallet or storage racking inside a freezer, can also shorten service life and create the need for more frequent inspections. As part of the inspection process, experts such as Gibbs will assess the general condition of the racking and look for any damage or weakness to the structure. They will make sure the structures are anchored properly, that safety locks are in place, and that no hardware or other pieces of the system are missing, for example. They will also assess any modifications that may have been made to the system to ensure those changes did not affect its safety, among other issues.
Clapp's work at the Rack Manufacturers Institute aims to help companies determine how frequently their storage racking should be inspected. RMI, an industry group within the trade association MHI, offers guidelines and standards for storage racks; Clapp says its document Considerations for the Planning and Use of Industrial Steel Storage Racks is a guideline that includes practical recommendations for rack maintenance and inspection. RMI has developed storage rack standards for more than 50 years, and its most recent—RMI/ANSI MH16.1-2012—serves as the default standard for storage rack implementation for the International Building Code. The group's R-Mark Certification program denotes manufacturers that have demonstrated the knowledge and skill required to meet the latest RMI standard for pallet storage racks, according to Clapp.
REPAIRED AND READY FOR DUTY
RMI emphasizes that rack safety and inspection is everyone's responsibility and that damage to racks should be reported immediately. Clapp adds that any damage to the structure should be repaired or the components replaced, no questions asked.
"The reason we say that is, again, [industrial storage racks are] high-performance structures. We are asking the steel to do every bit of its capability, so any damage will degrade its performance—maybe not enough to collapse the system, but you never know. So we recommend inspection, and to repair any damage found."
Companies should work with a rack engineer (usually a representative from the product's manufacturer or the systems integrator) to repair or replace damaged racks and components. Damage can include impacts to the frame or other portions of the rack (usually from a fork truck) as well as loose or missing hardware and anchors. The rack engineer can evaluate damage to determine if there is a safety concern; in those cases, the rack should be unloaded until the repair can be made, according to RMI.
Such issues are likely to gain prominence, experts add, during a time when most warehouses and DCs are working to get more products out the door faster than ever.
"A lot of companies are realizing that safety is good business," Gibbs explains. "It's really just a matter of what priority [the company] gives to [rack safety], and I've seen an increase in the priority most are giving it."