Reassessing risk: It’s good for business post COVID-19

Jim Roberts of Beaverswood considers how to mitigate risk as COVID-19 changes the face of industrial health and safety.

We are living through unprecedented times as the virus crisis reshapes so much of the UK’s economic landscape. Soaring online sales at the expense of high street trading is placing exceptional pressures on global supply chains and associated warehouses and logistics centres, which have had to gear up rapidly to meet increased demand and maximise productivity.

Online sales in 2020 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 forecasters suggest UK e-commerce will grow in value by as much as £5.3bn in 2020. Supermarket supply chains are also seeing surges in demand, placing additional pressure on their distribution and supply chain links. 

UK manufacturers have also undergone something of a step-change because of COVID-19; refocusing their efforts and strategies on developing more home-grown production capacity, to ensure that there will be adequate supplies of healthcare products to meet future demand in the face of a second wave of infections. 

As businesses realign their activities to meet the impact on infrastructures, resources and installations, the impact on workplace health and safety cannot be overstated: Employers must consider the paramount importance of keeping people and their workplace both safe and healthy while maximising productivity. 

Warehouses, distribution sites and transport hubs can be hazardous places to work but the extra volume of activity and traffic currently being experienced simply adds to the dangers; increasing further the risk of accidents, collisions between forklift trucks and other vehicles, and damage to people and property. The extra capacity and productivity, including more people and vehicles in work environment, has forced many facilities to re-consider their safety systems, including traffic flow management and pedestrian segmentation.

Protection and responsibilities

Indeed, the sheer volume of people carrying out their responsibilities under one roof, to shift and store goods and load and unload vehicles, places paramount emphasis on safety at all times if incidents and accidents are to be avoided. Under UK law, employers must observe a duty of care to their workforce: they must identify the health and safety risks each person faces at work. This usually 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. Put simply, 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 that could injure someone in the workplace environment. These can range from slips and trips, through vehicles operating in and around the warehouse, to collisions and impacts with racking, corner sections and walkways. 

That’s why it’s important to carry out site-specific risk assessments. And if an employer neglects their duty of care and a problem arises, an affected employee may be able to proceed with a claim of negligence with all the associated ramifications of financial penalties, legal costs and reputational damage. 

Adopting a holistic approach to mitigating risk has to be seen as good practice and a sensible first step. And this includes combining practical safety standards with safe behaviour as a part of an efficient workplace operation. The key part of managing risk is the assessment - the effective process of evaluating threats to workers' health and safety from workplace hazards in order to determine the measures required to eliminate or reduce the level of incidents/accidents. 

So bearing this in mind, taking a pragmatic approach with the installation of Visusafe safety barriers can pay dividends. They help to maintain awareness while offering a reassuring presence in an area where it is more than likely a moving vehicle will be present, encouraging people in the warehouse to habitually check their surroundings. This will ensure that they will not step out into the path of any forklifts or loading vehicles - handy assets to have in place when it comes to ensuring workers remain alert and aware of their surroundings.

Safety barriers and protectors can also help to reduce the severity of damage, and cost, to both infrastructure and vehicles in the event of a collision. It only takes a moment’s carelessness for an accident to occur, with all the associated ramifications. In the unfortunate event of a collision, a safety barrier can dramatically lower the risk of physical injury and expensive damage during the current heightened operations. 

A warehouse barrier system should be designed to standout, easily seen by the eye, particularly in environments where light levels may be low or inconsistent. Racking corners, vulnerable entrances and exit points should also be considered for protection by bollards and posts as part of an effective impact protection safety strategy. 

Another 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 injury to limbs and should be considered as part of any risk audit.

Good practice

Good practice around managing the health and safety issues to do with shift-work should see employers carry out a suitable assessment of the risks associated with shift work, as part of any organisation’s health and safety management system. You should record and review the risk assessment periodically and whenever changes to shift-working arrangements are considered or made. 

A risk assessment requires an employer to consider factors at work and those who might be harmed by them. To do this, it is important to gather and evaluate information about current shift-work arrangements in an organisation before using the assessment to decide what is required to minimise risks. 

Workers in warehouses can be struck by pedestrian operated pallet trucks, racks, or trolleys, so designated routes should be kept away from other workers where possible and indicated by designated barriers and railings that are clearly marked and visible. A risk assessment should have been carried out to consider what other work area specific hazards might 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 separation 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.

As well as a responsibility for their 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 onsite, inside and outside of buildings.

There is always room for improvement when it comes to safeguarding people and property, so the importance of good health and safety practice and equipment cannot be overstated in the current climate. Once more, if your facility has increased its productivity, resource and capacity, then your safety measures may no longer be enough. An effective safety audit coupled with investment in robust and appropriate safety measures will go a long way to mitigating risk now and in the future.  In short, it’s good business.

Beaverswood manufactures innovative products that improve the efficiency, safety and sustainability of the physical workplace. Its range includes labelling and signage, waste segregation and 5S visual communication solutions, as well as health and safety products. Product is supported with specialist expertise, marketing and promotional materials and an aftersales service. 

*https://www.chargedretail.co.uk/2020/06/15/5-3bn-boost-for-uks-ecommerce-sector-due-to-pandemic/

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