Material Handling 101 – Breaking Down OSHA’s Guidelines for Moving & Storage

Warehouse Pallet Storage

In the past, OSHA has released a series of “Outreach Construction Program” articles, meant to help educate safety managers and their employees, on various aspects of workplace safety. While some of the topics are industry specific, others are applicable to a wide range of industries. The moving, storage, and overall handling of materials is such a topic. OSHA’s outreach article on this topic is dense and extensive, covering many different areas. In this blog post, we’re going to break down much of the article section by section, and take a look at what OSHA is saying about each topic, hopefully uncovering some new insights and ideas for you along the way.

OSHA starts off by citing the high rate of injuries every year associated with material handling. When looking at the statistics OSHA offers up, it is important to keep a couple of things in mind.

  1. This article, in its latest iteration, comes from 1996, and some of the numbers cited come from as early as 1990. Part of the reason for writing this blog post is to look at what has changed, and bring OSHA’s findings current.
  2. The most common injuries by far associated with material handling injuries are those to the back, especially injuries to the lower back brought about by lifting. While this is the case, keep in mind that many other types of injuries, not involving the back or lifting at all, can occur (more on these later).

Moving Objects and Materials

Many handling incidents occur when materials are in motion. OSHA makes room for two main scenarios here: One is that the materials are being moved by a person manually, and the other is that the materials are being moved by a machine or mechanical aid (hand truck, forklift, crane, etc). In their article, OSHA gives some tips for safely conducting both types of operations.

For manual movement:

Handles and holders should be attached to loads to reduce the chances of getting fingers pinched or smashed. Workers also should use appropriate protective equipment. For loads with sharp or rough edges, wear gloves or other hand and forearm protection. To avoid injuries to the hands and eyes, use gloves and eye protection. When the loads are heavy or bulky, the mover should also wear steel-toed safety shoes or boots to prevent foot injuries if the worker slips or accidentally drops a load.

-OSHA – Materials Handling and Storage

The reasoning behind the first recommendation, having to pertain to attaching handles or grips, helps to prevent drops and also saves employees from those common back injuries; when no handles are on a box, a worker has to bend lower to pick it up from the bottom. While proper lifting technique helps to circumvent this risk, the farther an employee is bending, the more likely they are to break form and put too much strain on the wrong muscles. Sometimes handles and holders on standard materials containers are either non-existent or insufficient (made of a material that easily breaks off, oriented at an awkward angle, etc). As an extra recommendation, consider training your employees on proper lifting or moving of heavy loads. Training DVD’s can help raise awareness and prevent work-related acute and cumulative back injuries.

When using equipment to assist in the moving of materials, injuries are more often crushing or pinching related. OSHA states that operators of any kind of machinery should be trained on how to use it safely. While they give examples for forklifts, cranes, slings, and powered trucks, I would add that this policy should be extended down to the most mundane and simple tools and mechanical implements. Hand trucks and pallet jacks, for example, can become hard to control when they have a lot of weight one them (and thus directional momentum once they get moving). Training employees on moving slowly and intentionally, and not overloading equipment can help prevent injuries just as much as properly knowing how to control a crane or drive a truck. Consider which tools might be common in your workplace, but also might be dangerous in the hands of a new or untrained employee.

OSHA lists the following chemicals as creating an unsafe environment for the operation of industrial trucks due to their flammability and chance of causing a spark. It is important to note that sometimes one action relating to material handling is not dangerous on its own, but potentially disastrous when combined with other factors. Off of the top of my head, another example could be the use of heavily loaded carts and other objects with sharp corners in an environment containing pressurized cans or containers that could cause injury if punctured or dented.

Below is OSHA’s list of chemicals that are considered hazardous, therefore no powered industrial trucks should be used around these chemicals:

  • Acetylene
  • Butadiene
  • Ethylene oxide
  • Hydrogen (or gases or vapors equivalent in hazard to hydrogen, such as manufactured gas)
  • Propylene oxide
  • Acetaldehyde
  • Cyclopropane
  • Dimethyl ether
  • Ethylene
  • Isoprene, and
  • Unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine


Ergonomics is defined as the study of work and is based on the principle that the job should be adapted to fit the person, rather than forcing the person to fit the job. Ergonomics focuses on the work environment and items such as design and function of workstations, controls, displays, safety devices, tools, and lighting to fit the employees’ physical requirements and to ensure their health and well being.

-OSHA – Materials Handling and Storage

I really like the definition of ergonomics that OSHA provides here because it conveys an element that is so often left out. Ergonomics has come to be a sort of blanket statement for a type of design that lets workers sit comfortably, use computers without developing carpal tunnel syndrome, etc. However, as OSHA points out, the true purpose of ergonomics lies in making the job fit to the individual. Ergonomics is not a one size fits all game – read that again. Don’t just buy “ergonomic equipment” for your workplace, talk to employees about specific discomforts and what they think they need to do their jobs safer. Even if you’re the safety manager, one of the best things you can do is listen to your employees at all times and integrate their feedback into your safety solutions. Also, consider training your employees about ergonomics by using training DVD’s (similar to this Ergonomics Training DVD). These types of DVD’s helps explain techniques to help prevent work-related injuries.

Speaking of training, I don’t even have to reference OSHA’s article for you to know that that’s a big piece of the material handling safety puzzle. To develop your safety training, follow these three general steps:

  1. Gather broad safety information (from things like this article, OSHA’s and ANSI’s websites, etc.).
  2. Gather information specific to the needs of your employees and business (look at your own biggest risk factors and employee needs).
  3. Inform your employees of your findings, and teach them how to put new safety policies to use.

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