The Importance of Being “Shelf” Aware in the Workplace


When you’re looking to improve the workplace environment, there is a ton of advice out there about the importance of being self-aware. That is, paying attention to your own actions, monitoring your productivity, and the like… with the goal of becoming more thoughtful and mindful employees and better leaders in the office.  

That, along with a strong culture of teamwork, is key to creating a thriving, safe workplace.

I totally support these efforts as this can go a long way to establishing effective environmental, health and safety (EH&S) policies and to obtain “buy in” from all members of the team.

But I would also encourage everyone in an organization to not only be “self-aware” but also “shelf-aware.” I’ll explain exactly what that means in just a moment.

First, a little background.

At Envision Environmental, Inc. we visit many different types of facilities in the course of our work: mom-and-pop shops, large office complexes, retail stores, medical facilities, educational campuses, manufacturing plants… and everything in between.

And one of our primary goals is to help our clients hunt down the overlooked root causes of the EH&S exposures and liabilities in their facilities.

Often, the most overlooked root cause is found to be what we like to call an “invisible environmental gorilla.” In a nutshell, these are environmental issues at your facility that you simply don’t see because you’re at the facility every day and you’ve developed a familiarity blindness within your surroundings. These problems just blend into the background.  Check out this link for more information:

This is so common that my team and I conduct invisible environmental gorilla evaluations as a matter of routine. And what we’ve found is that there is one environmental gorilla that we see at every facility we visit.  We often find that not much attention is paid to shelf-awareness within the workplace.  Yes, that’s right, shelf-awareness – this is not a typo!

And this is a very dangerous gorilla. According to OSHA, a significant number of deaths and non-fatal injuries occur within the workplace because of a lack of shelf-awareness. Many deaths occur from objects falling on workers due to improper storage practices.  Many non-fatal injuries occur from improperly handling stored materials, including back injuries and muscle strains.  Releases into the environment that require time-consuming and costly clean-up can also occur, not to mention harmful exposures to personnel.

For example, say you have a container of hazardous material and the employee is in a rush to place the container on the storage unit so he can get onto his other job duties. However, he does not realize the storage unit shelf is not strong enough to support the weight of the container of hazardous material until…

It collapses a second after he sets it down, resulting in the release of the material, with some of it even splashing on the worker.

There is the potential for injury with improper storage, butalso regulatory violations with monetary penalties. But it doesn’t have to bethat way.

By being shelf-aware, you can prevent such situations fromever happening.

The Wonders – and Dangers – of Shelves

Shelving has been with us as a way to store things for thousands of years. Shelves are very versatile. And there are a ton of benefits from shelves… when used properly.

Sound and safe shelving:

o  Improves utilization of space.

o  Gets you better organized.

o  Improves your efficiency.

o  Equates to improved productivity.

o  Helps with storing materials more securely to improve loss prevention.

o  Assists with improving worker safety and decreasing potential worker exposures to hazardous conditions.

For just about any type of application in a facility, with any type of available space, proper shelving equates to a safer and more productive workplace.

Just like with any EH&S issue – or potential issue –safe and sound shelving is not something that is “set it and forget it.” When you follow that pattern, shelving can become an unsafe and potentially deadly invisible environmental gorilla.

In order to enjoy the full benefits of shelving and eliminate accidents with potential releases and injuries due to the misuse of shelving, it’s critical to conduct ongoing reviews and evaluations of the usage of shelves throughout the facility, from top to bottom, on a regular basis.

I recommend that shelving reviews be made part of routine preventive maintenance, whether that be on a quarterly or semi-annual basis. And some key issues to address that will help improve shelf-awareness during these evaluations include the following:

* Confirm all shelving units have been properly assembled and are sturdy and stable. If they need to be reinforced per the installation instructions… make sure they are reinforced as recommended by the manufacturer. Don’t skip a step. In addition, to prevent tip-overs and loss of the shelving unit itself – and the material stored on it – make sure your shelving units are properly secured.

This is especially important with warehouse rack storage units. What you’ll sometimes see on these is that the support beams have a “lip” on them, and sheets of plywood or steel are placed within those lip areas to form platforms on which the materials are placed for storage. But sometimes those platforms are cut too small or otherwise do not fit properly. So, if that mis-sized platform unexpectedly shifts while you are placing materials on it, that platform may collapse and fall through the rack storage beams.  And then there goes all your materials.

That’s why it’s critical that all shelving is well-constructed, and all components fit properly.

* Confirm that the shelving unit being used is rated for the weight that it is handling. Make sure you know the weight of any material that you are placing on a shelving unit and the weight limits for the shelving unit before you place the material on the shelving unit.

As part of the routine review of your shelving, be on the lookout for signs that the stored load is too heavy for the shelving unit. This could be a shelving unit that is leaning, platforms that are buckling under the strain, or other evidence of material stress in the shelving unit.

* Ensure that the shelving unit is being used to store material it was designed for. Some materials can cause a shelf to degrade or deteriorate. For example, you should not use metal shelves to store acids or bases.

There was one client we worked with, a retirement home, that stored their chemicals for pool maintenance, like chlorine, on metal shelving. Every time they grabbed that container of chlorine, a bit of it splashed out onto the shelf. Over time the metal shelf rusted and became pitted. It deteriorated to the point that it collapsed on a worker and released chlorine into the storage room. Look for any evidence of degradation in the shelving unit to indicate such conditions (e.g., rust, pitting, deterioration, corrosion, etc.).

* When inspecting shelving units, make sure that all those that store flammable materials are properly grounded. Hire a licensed electrician, or use one you have on staff, to properly ground the units and take appropriate measurements to confirm the grounding is secure.  Remember, just having a green wire connected to your shelving unit does not mean it is properly grounded.

* Ensure that whatever is on the shelf is stored securely.  All stored materials should be placed entirely on the shelf and not close to the edge, which could allow them to fall off easily, for example.

* Ensure that heavier materials are stored on lower shelves with lighter materials stored on higher shelves.

* Train all your employees who handle materials in the proper handling and storage of those materials. This includes all the best practices I’ve already mentioned, in addition to training in lifting, transporting, and adding or removing materials. You don’t want your workers using shelves as ladders to add or remove stored materials!

Training is extremely important in warehouses where lift trucks are used to add or remove items from rack storage units. Everybody who gets on a lift truck better be properly trained in its use. That means properly approaching a shelving unit, how to lift and transport pallets, and so forth.

You may have seen videos of what happens when proper procedures are not followed with lift trucks. If not, just go to YouTube, and search for “warehouse fails” to see example after example of entire shelving units collapsing due to a collision with a lift truck or other incident… that could have been easily avoided.

* Make sure every container on a shelf has been identified and properly labeled, with signs or placards also placed on the shelving units themselves as needed. Make sure all signs and labels are easy to see and read.

* Organize and arrange all stored materials neatly. This simple step makes things so much easier and safer.

* Store compatible materials together. And keep incompatible materials stored separately.

Finally, it goes without saying… but I’ll say it anyway because it is so important… that you must meet all OSHA standards for 29 CFR1926.250 Materials Handling, Storage, Use, and Disposal. You can download those rules here.

As you can see, becoming shelf-aware is important and should be made routine in your facility, at every level of the organization. It’s not being “shelfish” (had to throw this in here) to be strict on this as improper storage can cause serious injury and even death, not to mention cause the release of material in catastrophic ways.

I’d welcome the opportunity to chat with you about your material storage practices, including shelving. Just call me, Mark Roman, at 609-208-1885 or get in touch via email at

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