A House of Cards: Securing Storage Racks

By Mark A. Lies II and Adam R. Young

Editor’s note – Mark A. Lies II is a partner in the Environmental, Safety, and Toxic Tort Group in the Chicago, Illinois, law firm of Seyfarth Shaw LLP. He specializes in product liability, occupational safety and health, workplace violence, construction litigation, and related employment litigation.

Adam R. Young is an associate attorney in the Environmental, Safety, and Toxic Tort Group of Seyfarth Shaw. He focuses his practice in the areas of occupational safety and health, employment law, and associated commercial litigation. Legal topics provide general information, not specific legal advice. Individual circumstances may limit or modify this information.

Employers across most industries regularly use industrial steel storage racks to stow materials in the workplace. Unfortunately, accidents frequently occur resulting in the collapse of these storage racks and serious injuries to employees. Collapses can further result in losses of stored materials, damage to industrial trucks and real property, and business interruptions. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to ensure industrial steel storage racks in warehouses, distribution centers, and offices are blocked, interlocked, and otherwise secured against sliding and collapse. Accordingly, employers should select and install rack systems that are compliant with the relevant industry standards. Employers should periodically inspect rack systems and utilize a qualified engineer to approve any repairs or modifications. All installations, repairs, and modifications should be completed by a qualified installer.

Laws and Regulations
OSHA has issued very general regulations regarding the use of industrial shelving in the workplace. Under OSHA’s General Industry regulation (29 Code of Federal Regulations 1910.176(b)), “…storage of material shall not create a hazard. Bags, containers, bundles, etc., stored in tiers shall be stacked, blocked, interlocked, and limited in height so that they are stable and secure against sliding or collapse.” The regulation requires employers to store materials on industrial storage racks in such a manner to prevent sliding, falling, and collapse. This regulation must be considered in conjunction with OSHA’s General Duty Clause, which requires that an employer “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” (29 United States Code 654(a)(1)). The General Duty Clause provides a catch-all provision under which the agency can cite an employer for failure to correct a “recognized” hazard.

There is no OSHA Standard Interpretation that offers guidance with regard to the construction, installation, maintenance, and repair of steel storage racks. While the codes and recommendations produced by private industry associations are not law, OSHA frequently relies on them as “guidance from their originating organizations related to worker protection” for generally recognized safety practices. For example, OSHA regularly defers to American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards, which the agency calls “industry consensus standards,” as evidence that a hazard is recognized. Accordingly, OSHA generally will take the position that an employer must comply with ANSI and industry standards to protect employees from recognized hazards, or face possible inspections and costly citations.

ANSI Standard MH16.1 (2012), published by the Rack Manufacturers Institute (RMI), is the Specification for the Design, Testing, and Utilization of Industrial Steel Storage Racks. The ANSI specification includes design and material specifications as well as communication requirements with regard to maximum loads. For example, the specification requires that columns must be furnished with base plates and anchored to the floor. Where mandated by local law, racks must be built to withstand earthquake effects.

Further Considerations for Industrial Storage Racks
RMI provides further industry guidance in its Considerations for the Planning and Use of Industrial Steel Storage Racks (2012). This guidance document recommends that employers who do not possess the necessary in-house expertise on industrial storage racks hire a material handling specialist to determine the specification requirements and storage rack layout for their building. When purchasing storage racks, the guidance suggests employers use purchase orders that mandate racks be designed in accordance with the latest ANSI standard. The RMI guidance gives additional information on design, use, load containment, housekeeping, and equipment handling near racks.

It is well recognized that industrial storage racks are frequently damaged in workplaces by powered industrial trucks, often jeopardizing their load capacity and stability. The guidance document requires employers to periodically inspect all components of the rack system for damage and decay and provides factors employers should consider when determining the frequency of those inspections. Steel frame repairs and modifications must be designed by a qualified engineer and installed by qualified installers, who must repair the damaged storage rack to a strength equal to or greater than the original load-bearing capacity.

Unfortunately, many employers do not utilize qualified individuals to make the necessary repairs, instead using maintenance employees or third parties who are not certified welders or otherwise qualified to perform hot work repairs. This problem is further compounded by repairs that are made utilizing steel replacement components that do not have the same structural design capacity as the original storage rack components. As a result, the repairs are inadequate and there is no assurance that the storage rack has the same structural load bearing capacity as originally designed. Employers should supply information on damage and proposed repairs to the original manufacturer or to a qualified engineer to ensure the racks are returned to the original structural design capacity.

Relationship to Powered Industrial Truck Standard
Most damage and accidents involving industrial steel storage racks are caused by an operator’s incorrect operation of a forklift or other type of powered industrial truck. Under OSHA’s Powered Industrial Truck Standard (29 Code of Federal Regulation 1910.178), employers must develop a written program to train all employees who will be required and authorized to operate forklifts as to the hazards of such equipment. Employers must conduct classroom-type training and actually observe the employee operating the equipment under the physical conditions of the workplace, such as aisles between industrial storage racks and loading material into the storage racks. The employer must provide a certificate stating the employee has completed the training. The employee must be retrained and recertified every three years, at a minimum, or after an accident or “near miss” that resulted from an unsafe act. In the event a steel storage rack is seriously damaged in an accident involving a powered industrial truck, the regulation will require the employer to retrain its employee on the operation of the powered industrial truck and maintain documentation of the retraining.

Storage of Material
In addition to the requirement that the storage racks themselves be stable and secure, the material itself – whether in bags, containers, bundles, or loose – must also be stored in a manner that prevents sliding or collapse while it is in the storage rack. These materials frequently slide or collapse due to several factors:
• damaged pallets,
• torn cardboard or fiber packaging,
• damage to shrink wrapping,
• failure to properly place the materials within the storage rack by the forklift operator, and
• pushing material by the forklift operator too far within the rack and out of the storage rack position into the adjoining aisleway.

In order to prevent these occurrences, the employer must develop procedures to inspect materials being placed into the storage racks to ensure they are secure within their packaging and supported by an undamaged pallet. In addition, forklift operators must be trained on how to place these materials in the storage racks so the material packaging is not damaged and becomes unstable and that the loads are properly mounted within the storage rack enclosure.

OSHA Liability
In the event a steel storage rack were to collapse and OSHA can establish that the employer failed to install, inspect, maintain, and repair it to secure materials being stored from sliding, falling, or collapsing, the employer can be subject to civil citations ranging from serious ($7,000) to willful ($70,000). These penalties will increase on August 1, 2016, to $12,500 for a serious citation and $126,000 for a willful citation. In addition, there could be potential criminal liability if an employee was killed by a collapsing storage rack or materials. If there was a fatality, there is a potential for six months imprisonment as well as a penalty of $500,000 against the employer and $250,000 against an individual.

In order to prevent any injury to an employee and be OSHA compliant, the employer should consider the following:

• Develop a program to ensure that storage racks are installed, maintained, and repaired in order to uphold the manufacturer’s original load-bearing design capacity.

• Conduct frequent inspections to identify damage to the storage racks that may affect the load-bearing capacity.

• Require employees to immediately report any incidents where storage racks have been damaged.

• Immediately remove from service any storage racks where the damage has created a hazard of imminent collapse.

• Utilize a qualified engineer or the original manufacturer to specify any repairs that may be necessary.

• Utilize qualified repair personnel to perform repairs and authorized replacement components.

• Establish a procedure to inspect the materials prior to them being placed in the storage racks to ensure the materials are secure against sliding or collapse.

• Properly train forklift operators on how to place loads of material onto the storage rack so the load is secure against sliding or collapse.

• Document the employer’s program on an ongoing basis.

June 2016 RENDER | back