Creating a Warehouse Safety Culture: Change Your Perspective in 2024

At the beginning of my career, safety was just a metric. It was a bothersome bullet point that I had to discuss each month with the management team and corporate figureheads. We’d brainstorm ways to reduce non-compliance, but it was all for the wrong reasons. We didn’t have a warehouse safety culture.

warehouse safety culture

How It Started

The operation I inherited was a complete mess. The housekeeping was poor and the morale was even worse. Associates were working 60 hours/week just to get the orders out, if at all. We had to make changes and fast.

At the time I was an engineer and well-versed on the metrics and best practices needed to run an operation. Needless to say safety wasn’t one of them.

After six months we’d managed to solve most of our issues through accountability and terminations. I can’t say the operation was running smoothly but at least customers were getting their orders on time and undamaged.

Our Safety Mindset

We believed that strains and sprains were excuses for getting out of work and wandering around the workplace without any responsibility.

We felt that a doctor’s restrictions were overstated if not fabricated with a fancy printer and illegible signature. We’d look up doctors online and call clinics to validate restrictions, not trusting our associates.

Light duty was a buzzword for ‘sit on your ass and do nothing.’ It became a warehouse joke and a crutch for those involved in performance-related counseling. “Just get on light duty for a few months until you’re clear from accountability,” people would advise. 

We had warehouse associates on restricted reading books for 8 hours or sitting on chairs while auditing customer orders in the quality department. 

We made up work tasks to keep them busy, most of which did not add any value to the operation. Finally, I had enough and made a change.

people reading books in a warehouse environment

We focused more on associate accountability and issued discipline for people who were injured when not following best practices. Our safety audits were rules based, hoping to catch people not following the rules and make an example of them for all to see. 

Then, we devised painful tasks to punish those on restricted duty, trying to get them to fold up and go home. We’d put them by a roll-up door, and ask them to count the number of times a forklift went in and out of the building. Note: I really liked this one when it was really cold or hot outside.

We’d ask them to watch the boxes on the conveyor for hours, making notes if one jammed or fell over. Like every other metric we’d solved, we believed this heavy-handed approach would deter and reduce recordables. It did not.

An Unexpected Visitor

warehouse supervisor job description

One day, the safety geek came down from corporate and had a chat with the team.  

I didn’t even know we had a person solely responsible for warehouse safety.

He discussed the importance of safety in our warehouse and shared a few stories from a different warehouse environment that would change our perspective. Here are the short versions of those stories:

Lesson 1: Don’t Cut Coroners

In our inbound operations, we would open at least one carton from each PO to ensure what we ordered was in the box. This auditing process was typically performed by the least senior person on the receiving team, in this instance, a young man in college.

The process was simple. Use a blade to cut the box open, compare the product to our website listing, return the product to the carton, and reseal the box.

This young man used a utility knife, which was non-standard practice in a warehouse setting. While opening the box and cutting towards his body, he sliced the inside of his leg, cutting his femoral artery on the warehouse floor. 

This is the main artery pumping blood from the heart into your legs, and stopping the bleeding would prove next to impossible.

The management team immediately called 911, and within 4 minutes, an ambulance arrived.

Later, we learned that the ambulance staff just happened to be in the area, and if another minute or two passed by, he would have lost his life.

ambulance in a warehouse

Lesson 2: Conveying the Wrong Message

Often, associates will ignore safety best practices in the spirit of accomplishment. Warehouse orders must flow constantly, and any conveyor stoppage costs the operation time and money. Hourly goals must be met.

A pick module consists of several levels of product (SKUs) and boxes being conveyed from one zone to another. If a photo eye gets blocked when boxes back up on the conveyor, producing a beeping noise. This noise alerts everyone around the area to clear the jam and keep the conveyor moving.

The jam alarm is typically loud and pulsating. It irritates those working in the area, creating a greater sense of urgency to clear the jam, reset the conveyor, and stop the noise, and get the boxes moving again.

A young lady with a vibrant and high-energy personality worked in a pick module. She was by far one of the fastest and most respected selectors in the department.

Before going any further, I must also inform you that long hair below the shoulder is prohibited in a warehouse environment. 

Every person with hair touching their shoulder must pin it up and out of the way to prevent it from getting caught in the conveyor. This young lady was following the requirements.

Note: This image was AI generated.

young lady working in a warehouse

Early one evening, she was working in a zone unfamiliar to her and heard the beeping noise indicating a conveyor jam. She immediately stopped picking and looked to see where the jam was occurring. Once she found the jam, she noticed no clear path to this conveyor portion. So she slid under it.

The conveyor system grabbed her hair and started to pull. Within seconds her head was scalped and she was screaming. The outcome wasn’t as fortunate as the first scenario. This young lady lost her life trying to meet expectations.

What’s Your Focus?

It’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of getting orders to customers, and it’s also applauded. This is often the message communicated to associates before, after, and during their shifts throughout warehouse operations.

How many orders did we process last hour? What was my productivity? Did we meet our goals? Are we going home early?

a warehouse productivity board

That 30-minute conversation with an individual from the home office, the ‘safety geek’ as I referred to him in the past, changed my perspective forever. The dramatic stories were unexpected and frustrated my ignorance when told in his ‘matter of fact’ manner. 

I love and care about warehouse personnel, especially those working in my warehouse. But I wasn’t communicating this in a way that changed behaviors. I was providing ‘lip service’ to the warehouse safety measures.

Fortunately, those incidents didn’t happen in my facility, but I knew from my message that we were headed in that direction.

A Culture of Safety

Warehouse safety isn’t a metric. It isn’t a board that you hang in your operation. It isn’t the 3-minute safety topic you cover in your start-up meetings or the communication boards that get updated every few months. 

Safety has to become your culture. It must be how you and everyone else in your operation behave. It’s about not letting unsafe behaviors go uninterrupted and holding each other accountable for their actions in real-time.

Sending a Different Message

After the meeting, I became passionate about warehouse safety. I wanted everyone to know that the most important part of my job was keeping people safe. I promised to allow associates to return home in the same manner they entered the workplace every day.

When I previously talked about ‘pouring safety’ over those I come into contact with, I meant it. My behaviors drastically changed from an accountability tone to a real-life personal tone. And when the leader’s focus changes, the culture changes. It will be important to those who work for you when it’s important to you.

“I noticed you aren’t wearing your seatbelt when operating equipment. Your wife and kids will kill me if I let you get away with that.” 

“Please don’t get that close to the edge of the pick module without a harness. Putting that darn harness on is a pain, but I don’t want you to fall off.”

“I don’t need you to run in the building. The boxes and customers can wait. I would hate for you to slip because I’d have to dig the crutches out of the safety room.”

Several weeks later, during our monthly building wide meetings, I showed the video “I Chose to Look the Other Way” by Don Merrell. While the video is rather old, it helped communicate a change in the behaviors of the management team. It personifies the goal of creating a warehouse safety culture.

Conclusion – Warehouse Safety Culture

Please take this message to heart. Unsafe behaviors happen every day in most warehouse operations across the country. Ensure your associates know their safety is paramount to you and your company. 

Most importantly, teach others to have the courage to stop unsafe behaviors before it’s too late.

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