Working Safely with Pallets - Manual Handling

••• Rick LeBlanc, licensed to About.com

Pallets used in supply chain operations can lead to injuries such as puncture wounds and sprained ankles, broken toes or worse. If used for a non-approved purpose, such as a man lift, the result could be tragic. With roughly 2 billion pallets circulating in the United States, it serves material handlers to take some basic precautionary steps to avoid injury. 

Pallet safety can relate to pallets under load, or working with empty pallets.

This article deals with the handling of empty pallets only. For a thorough review of OSHA requirements related to dealing with pallets under load or handling stacks of empty pallets, please check out this detailed article about pallet safety.

Here are some safety best practices for working with empty pallets:

Never use pallets as a man lift. Only use approved, engineered lift platforms for this purpose, after having received and signed off on necessary training. A pallet should never be used as a man lift.Pallets may be designed to hold 2800 lbs or more, but this is for loads uniformly distributed, not for very localized loads such as the feet of a worker.

Never stand empty pallets on end. Empty pallets standing on end are unstable and can cause injury if they tip and land on a leg or foot.

Use personal protective equipment when handling pallets. When handling pallets, the use of gloves is advised, as well as safety shoes to prevent injury if a pallet is dropped on a foot.

Hearing protection may be prudent if pallets are being dropped. Some facilities mandate a soft landing when placing pallets on the floor to avoid damaging noise.

Do not use a damaged pallet, or one not rated for the task. If pallets are damaged, inappropriate for the job, or if you are not sure, they should be removed from the workplace.

Clean up pallet debris on an ongoing basis. Broken pallet boards can cause slip and trip hazards, as well as cause instability for material handling equipment. Debris can also result in damage to material handling equipment wheels. 

Exercise extreme caution if standing on a pallet.  A worker standing on a pallet can be injured if a deck board breaks, or if the worker’s foot gets caught between deck boards. Depending upon design, some pallets of 9-leg design may be prone to tipping when empty. 

Use a pick hook for accessing products at the back of a pallet. One way to avoid stepping on a pallet is to use a pick hook to reach product on the back of a pallet and pull it forward. 

Take care when stepping between pallets. When pallets are positioned side by side in storage racks, workers may step between or on pallets to access products at the back of the pallet. Ankle or knee injury can result if the worker loses balance while stepping between pallets.

Manage the risk of manually lifting pallets. Pallets can vary greatly in weight--from less than 20 lbs to 70 lbs or more. A couple of approaches can be useful. Lightweight pallets may be an opportunity for some applications, and these enable an easy lift for a single employee.

For many applications, however, heavier pallets are typically used. Employees should be encouraged to work together to jointly lift heavier pallets, unless mechanized solutions such as a forklift are available to facilitate the lift.

Restrict the height of stacked pallets to 4 feet. If workers are stacking or unstacking them manually, keep maximum stack height to a reasonable level to facilitate easier pallet handling. Have a forklift operator separate full stacks in half at the point of use.

Ensure that pallets will slide freely, or ask for help. When manually moving a wood pallet off of a stack, it is a good idea to ensure that it will slide freely by tipping the pallet slightly to ensure that the pallet is not snagged on the pallet below by a protruding nail. Better yet, ask a co-worker to assist in the lift.

Use mechanized equipment where available. Use mechanization, such as a forklift or automated pallet dispenser, to handle pallets, where available.

Keep your friends close, and your pallet closer. When lifting a pallet, keep vertical and close to the torso to maintain a close center of balance.

Keep the work area free of pallet debris. When working with wood pallets, ensure that any broken pallet lumber is regularly swept up to avoid risk of sprained ankle or nail puncture wound.

Segregate damaged pallets. Set aside damaged or substandard pallets for repair or recycling.

Enter pallets with care. When entering pallets of merchandise with a power jack, take care to ensure the stability of the load by entering squarely, and be cognizant that when entering, you may be pushing the pallet forward, potentially into another worker that may be obscured behind your load. Some facilities mandate a warning honk before entering a unit load of merchandise to warn other workers. 

Handling pallets is a daily practice in many workplaces, and where necessary safety precautions are taken, a safe working environment is typically the result. Before starting on the job, check with your employer to be clear about safe handling expectations.