Prevent Lift Truck Product Damage Through Smart Warehouse Design

Lift trucks are a highly useful tool, improving efficiency of warehouse operations everywhere. Modern Materials Handling reports that 941,808 lift trucks were sold in 2011 worldwide.

However, despite their utility, lift trucks are a leading cause of freight damage. According to TT Club, handling equipment collisions are the second most common cause of freight damage, making up 13.6% of all claims. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, fork lift accidents cost $135 million per year.

The likelihood of lift trucks causing damage depends on several factors. A warehouse designed to accommodate lift trucks can dramatically reduce the occurrence of damaged products. The ideal warehouse design for lift trucks would consist of wide aisles, open space, and no clutter or beams to navigate around. Of course, space is a large cost center for a warehouse, so warehouses are often more cramped than would be ideal. Ample space is essential, but there are many additional improvements that can be made to reduce product damage without giving up space unnecessarily.

We’ll start with some basic dimensional guidelines, followed by additional features to add to the warehouse to reduce damage. Need more information on reducing damage from lift trucks? Download our Lift Truck Damage Prevention Checklist for tips to help your lift truck operators reduce product damage.

Size Matters

The aisle size needed will depend on the type of truck used. Here are the typical dimensions used by each type of truck:

Lift Truck TypeAisle Width

Counterbalance Lift Truck with single deep, 3 – 4 high pallet stacking capability11 – 13 foot aisle

Single Deep Reach Truck with single deep 4 - 7 high pallet stacking capability8 – 10 foot aisle

Double Deep Reach Truck – double deep 4 to 6 high pallet stacking capability10 - 11 foot aisle

Very Narrow Aisle Turret Truck - Single Deep 4 to 8 High Pallet Stacking6 – 7 foot aisle

Your specific forklift will come with documentation to help you determine the necessary aisle width.

Also take into consideration pallet size – are you using a standard 48” pallet? Or a larger or smaller size? This will also effect the aisle widths needed.

Lights, Camera, Action

Visibility is essential for reducing product damage. Better lighting will help improve driver visibility, reducing accidents and missteps. Only a few inches determine the difference between a successful lift and a stabbed carton. Ensure that the warehouse is well lit, especially in loading and unloading areas.

Light placement is also important. Forklift operators already need to worry about what is around them at ground level – don’t make them worry about hitting a light when operating a high reach forklift. Ensure that lighting fixtures, fans, sprinkler systems, and other fixtures are mounted above the highest forklift level.

A camera mounted on the forklift can also help to improve driver visibility. You can also improve visibility by installing convex mirrors at hard to see areas throughout the warehouse, like at corners and blind spots.

Get a Smooth Ride

When a lift truck drives over seams or cracks in flooring, it causes the load to shift. According to Joe Manone of Rite-Hite Corp, the effects are even worse when moving between the dock levelers, dock, and trailer. "One of the most common causes of load damage is the result of the jolts that occur to the loads when the forklifts are crossing the dock levelers from the dock to the trailers," says Manone.

Rite-Hite specializes in dock levelers that provide a smooth transition between dock and trailer.

Invest in a quality, smooth flooring to minimize damage. Where seams or cracks cannot be smoothed, paint them bright orange to alert lift drivers. In problem areas such as between docks and trailers, or on slopes or ramps, post signs with a reduced speed limit so drivers know that they need to slow down, even during busy periods. A posted speed limit will also show impatient carriers that the fork lift driver is working as fast as he can. Also invest in a quality dock leveler to ensure a jolt-free transition from the dock to the trailer.

Vibration can also cause product damage, especially to delicate products such as fruit. Therefore, in addition to avoiding seams that cause jolting, ensure that dock levelers and flooring are smooth throughout to reduce vibration.

Don’t Let the Trailer Get Away From You

Horizontal shifting, or trailer creep, may be caused by a forklift moving around in a trailer. Severe accidents can happen due to trailer dock separation. MH&L estimates that there were 39 fatalities due to trailer dock separation between 2002 and 2009. To prevent accidents such as these, always ensure that trailers are properly secured. MH&L suggests using more than one method in order to ensure redundant safety measures. Also ensure that there are clear procedures to outline who is responsible for securing the trailer.

Vertical shifting is also a problem. When a forklift enters a trailer, the weight of the forklift can cause the trailer to suddenly drop up to 8 inches. This is especially concerning on trailers with air-ride suspensions. According to Rite-Hite, their Str-4000 Dok-Lok Vehicle Restraint stabilizes the rear of the trailer both horizontally and vertically to reduce trailer drop and shifting.

Remember, lift truck operators need good visibility for maximum control. To help with visibility inside the trailer, install lighting on the dock to illuminate the trailer when it is being loaded or unloaded.

A Sign from Above

Add stop signs at intersections or other hazardous areas. Mark traffic lines on the floor, as well as speed limits. Also mark the edges of docks and ramps in orange to alert forklift drivers.

Heads Up

When racks are being loaded or unloaded with pallets, too much pressure from the lift truck operator can cause the entire pallet to fall off of the other side of the aisle. To protect from this, install strong netting to catch any falling pallets. If you ever allow staff to work in the aisles adjacent to racks that are being loaded or unloaded, this netting is essential for worker safety as well.

Keep it Clean

A dirty, wet, or oily floor will reduce traction and increase the risk of forklift accidents.

Require employees to clean up wet or oily spills immediately. If some activities are prone to frequent spills, try to locate them away from areas with high forklift traffic.

Encourage staff to toss garbage as it is created, rather than throwing it on the floor and cleaning it up later. Label backings in particular are slippery and create a hazard for both lift trucks and pedestrians. Make it easy for staff to dispose of waste quickly by distributing many garbage cans throughout the warehouse. Garbage cans should always be close at hand.

It is a good idea to assign zones for each employee to keep clean – this will create accountability for the cleanliness of the warehouse. Dust can also be slippery, so distribute brooms throughout the warehouse, and ask employees to sweep up during slow times.

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Soup up That Lift Truck

Admittedly, the lift truck itself isn’t part of the design of the warehouse, but some key design features can help to reduce product damage.

“I highly recommend side shifts as standard equipment of forklifts,” says Dave Piasecki from Inventory Ops. “Not only do they increase productivity, but they also help to prevent product damage and promote safety by allowing the lift truck operator to perform the task with fewer movements and eliminates the need to ride right against the wall of a trailer.” He also recommends that any forklift that boards a trailer is equipped with spotlights. Spotlights will also help forklift operators in any nook of the warehouse that isn’t well lit.

Bumpers or padding can be installed on the forks and the forklift’s backrest to reduce marring and denting of cartons. Some products will also reduce the vibration that is transferred to the load.

Just be sure to check with the manufacturer when making modifications to a forklift, as it may change the load capacity or center of gravity.

The Human Factor

When planning your warehouse design, also consider the staff running the lift trucks. Do you have a high turnover for lift operators? Do you have trouble finding experienced talent? If you have a stable, experienced workforce operating the lift trucks, your staff will be able to handle a tighter, more challenging warehouse.

Also think about the pace that you and your carriers expect of lift truck operators. Is it a fast paced environment? Are workers more likely to choose speed over extra care? A high pressure warehouse needs to be easier to navigate.

Next Steps

Whether you are designing a warehouse from scratch or you are looking for a few simple fixes, there are many improvements you can make to reduce damage. Once you have optimized your warehouse space to reduce damage, make sure that your staff take steps to reduce product damage as well. Download our tips for lift trucks drivers in our Lift Truck Damage Prevention Checklist.