Over the past 20 years, the logistics industry has been transformed, largely as a result of the explosion in e-commerce. With orders increasingly going directly to consumers, some transport operators are being tempted to keep pallet weights high, consignments cheap, and the risks unchecked.
As the problem becomes more widespread, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has been looking at reducing the maximum pallet weight in a bid to curb the number of injuries sustained by drivers. But are guidelines alone enough? Given all we know about safety in the workplace, it is worrying to see that the rate of injury within the sector remains alarmingly high in the UK. Of the 622,000 non-fatal workplace injuries sustained on average each year, around 122,000 were the result of handling, lifting or carrying goods.
According to the HSE, the accident rate for haulage is higher compared to other sectors like construction and agriculture. Manual handling, along with trips and falls, account for as many as two-thirds of reportable injuries – so, as the HSE points out, a reduction in these figures could significantly lower the overall injury levels.
As well as the ethical considerations around worker safety, transport operators would be wise to consider the cost to their business. Conditions arising from handling loads that are too heavy, notably back injuries, mean hauliers may be unable to carry out their duties for weeks, months or even more long-term. News that the HSE is pushing for pallet weights to be reduced is certainly welcome, though I believe it does not go far enough. Over the past few years, we have seen the size of pallets slowly creeping up in line with demand for faster and most cost-effective methods of delivery.
Largely driven by the explosion in e-commerce, demand for deliveries is changing. Currently, business-to-consumer (B2C) consignments make up 20 per cent of orders across the sector, although the number is growing all the time. However, as online firms attempt to lure consumers away from their competitors with ultra-fast or free deliveries, some transport operators are seeing their margins being squeezed more and more.
Of course, this might well damage their bottom line, since the price of delivering a parcel rarely reflects the costs involved. Unsurprisingly, they will look to pass the costs onto others in the supply chain, with haulage firms inevitably taking the hit and being pushed into increasing their pallet sizes. Although the HSE has recognised the need for a review on pallet weight, it is not yet clear what the next steps will be, either for the logistics industry and the government.
My chief concern is that the HSE will not tackle the problem head on without firm legislation. Guidelines might be helpful for other areas of the industry, however where worker safety is concerned, transport operators must be held accountable. No doubt the more professional firms would adhere to the guidelines and build them into existing procedures – however there are others that would simply fall through the net. With no legal requirement to keep pallet weight low, there is little to persuade the less scrupulous ones to follow the rules, particularly if compliance hits their profits.
For companies that do follow the guidelines, there is every danger that they will lose out commercially to those who don’t because they are not as competitively priced. This means that as well as reducing the number of injuries, legislation would also provide a level playing for operators, making sure nobody is at an unfair disadvantage.
Enshrining these rules in law means both employers and employees would be in no doubt about pallet weights and it sends out a clear message that there is no room for manoeuvre. It also sets out the penalties that could be imposed on companies that fail to uphold the rules, including the level of fines, and enables workers who have been injured to make a compensation claim.
As the number and scope of B2C orders grows, so too will the need for legislation on pallet weight. Increasingly, hauliers must deliver all manner of consumer goods, from furniture to large electrical items, directly to a customer’s home rather than to a central store as was the case only a decade ago. The weight of some of these consignments raises questions about whether they are safe to deliver at the kerbside or if more people are needed to carry them to the door.
Many in logistics are now acutely aware of these problems and are further stepping up their efforts to protect workers. Within our own network, for example, we are working with another business to supply semi-electric pumps to help with heavy deliveries and alleviate the chance of injury. As an industry, we also need to educate our customers about how we work. Compared to the B2B market, consumers do not tend to be aware of issues such as pallet weight as understandably, their primary concern is whether something arrives on time and undamaged.
If haulage firms want to benefit from the rise in B2C orders, we must look at how technology can be harnessed to give customers more choice about delivery times and locations. This will allow operators to plan more effectively, ensuring that each driver has the support they need to manage heavy consignments.
While the rapid pace of change has certainly opened up new opportunities in the sector, we must be mindful of the risks that come with this. The HSE has put the issue of pallet weights firmly in the spotlight – and I do not want it to miss this chance to create safer and more productive working environments for everyone.
Posted on: October 12th 2017