Warehousing operations have a higher injury rate than other workplaces, but OSHA hopes to help address that problem with a new five-year program in Pennsylvania and other neighboring states.
With the rapid growth of e-commerce, the warehousing industry has grown tremendously. And last week, the US Department of Labor announced that a new five-year initiative will target warehousing operations. Officials hope the program will reduce worker injuries and illnesses in warehousing, storage and distribution areas.
Kevin Chambers, director of OSHA in Harrisburg, said this new initiative, OSHA’s Regional Focus Program, will allow the department to be more proactive with safety.
“This program gives us the opportunity to lean forward,” he said.
The warehousing and storage industry’s injury rate of 4.8 per 100 workers is higher than the US average of 2.7 per 100 rate among all private industries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Additionally, from 2017 to 2020, the bureau reported 93 work-related fatalities nationwide in the industry.
As locals know, the central region of Pennsylvania has become a prime area for warehouses. Companies have said the area’s good workforce and easy access to major highways are among the reasons they are building here.
OSHA officials say its Harrisburg office routinely receives complaints and reports injuries related to forklift hazards, machine protection (any part, function or process of the machine that could cause injury must be guarded) and other hazards associated with warehousing activities.
But OSHA does not conduct annual audits of storage operations like restaurant inspectors do. Chambers said they didn’t have enough manpower to do that. OSHA’s Harrisburg office has 12 inspectors who cover an area of 14 counties, and their duties extend far beyond warehouses. Often, when an inspector visits a warehouse, it is after a complaint or injury at work.
“Every time we do an OSHA inspection, there’s a specific reason we’re doing it,” Chambers said.
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Last month, OHSA launched its regional initiative for Pennsylvania, Delaware, the District of Columbia and West Virginia. The program complements the work of regional OSHA offices as they continue to open inspections in response to complaints, hospitalizations and deaths.
During the first three months of the program, OHSA’s outreach focuses on education and prevention. Meanwhile, agency representatives will share safety and health information with employers, trade associations, workers and other stakeholders.
Chambers encourages employers to review operations at their facilities — repairing broken items, working with employees on safety procedures, properly maintaining vehicles, providing proper training, and avoiding blocked aisles and exits.
“You want to start with the basics,” he said.
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Later this year, OSHA will begin targeted enforcement, incorporating on-site inspections to identify safety and health hazards, including those typically found in the warehousing industry. These include those related to the use of motorized industrial trucks (such as forklifts), lockout/tagout procedures (the practices and procedures necessary to disable machinery or equipment when performing service and maintenance activities), machinery guarding, means of escape and fire suppression.
“One of the biggest things is blocked aisles, blocked exits,” Chambers said.
Chambers said specific warehouses will not be targeted. But instead a random list will be created from OSHA’s Office of Statistical Analysis.
As a general rule, there is no advance notice for inspections.
Chambers said any time you have a lot of people, moving vehicles and machinery, it increases the risk of injury.
“We try to focus our inspections where people are most vulnerable,” he said.
The emphasis program ends August 3, 2027, unless extended.
Chambers noted that while OHSA can penalize companies, they cannot shut down a facility. That authority belongs to local authorities, he said.
But Chambers said breaches can still be costly. Severe violations cost between $1,036 and $14,502 per violation; Lesser violations range from $0 to $14,502 per violation, and willful or repeat violations range from $10,360 to $145,027 per violation.
Workforce safety in general is a very serious issue, as tragedy has struck a number of workplaces this year in the Harrisburg-based OHSA’s 14-county region.
In August, 22-year-old Alex Carrillo of New Oxford died days after being involved in an accident while working at an Amazon warehouse in South Middleton Township. The accident happened while Carrillo was performing routine work on a motorized industrial truck in the factory.
In general (not just in warehouses), there were 22 workplace fatalities from October to September. That’s a big increase from the previous two years when there were 14 and 15 deaths, respectfully.