Regulations To Watch: Material Handling in a Regulated World

Lawmakers at the federal, state and local levels can have a profound effect on your material handling projects and processes. Information is your best defense.

“Ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it.”

This is an early 15th century English proverb, but anyone involved in a 21st century material handling systems project would do well to live by it.

There’s another quote you should remember: “The devil is in the details.” The details can cripple a material handling project and cost your company millions of dollars in lost time, material and labor. The Feds are scary enough, but they probably have bigger fish to fry than you. It’s the local enforcers who really have their eyes on you at the outset of any material handling project — even if it’s a mere mezzanine.

One of consultant Bob Footlik’s California clients learned that lesson the hard way.

“All this guy wanted to do was build a little 20-foot by 40-foot mezzanine,” he recalls. “But that opens up the process of getting a permit. To get a permit, you need seismic calculations on your mezzanine. Any time you have to go for a permit it opens a local can of worms in terms of retrofitting the building according to ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] for elevators, for lighting or for upgrades of sprinklers. Under NFPA Code 13, if you have a mezzanine, even if it’s an open-grating mezzanine four feet wide — just a passageway — it technically requires a sprinkler head under it. To put that head in, you need a permit. Then they come back and want a backflow preventer valve. So for one lousy sprinkler head under a bar-grating mezzanine that’s over an aisle, you could be faced with up to $100,000 in sprinkler retrofits.”

Sound like a horror story? Well, there are also plenty of horror stories that result from misapplied material handling technology. The permitting process can turn into a seemingly endless series of passageways on the way to project completion, but there are good reasons for most of them.

“Every time a rack gets knocked down or collapses because it was overloaded, it receives attention,” says William T. Guiher, P.E., vice president of material handling simulations, Inflection Point Inc. “When it receives attention, it heightens the community’s sense that these structures can be dangerous. There have been code requirements for building permits and professional structural/civil engineering reviews of those designs forever, but either not enforced or casually enforced in many parts of the country. Today those are receiving a lot more attention.”

It’s easy to make mistakes on a material handling project involving complex laws of physics. For example, retrofitting an overhead conveyor involves several vital pieces of information that must be attained from a variety of sources.

“Sometimes people misunderstand the architect who designed their building,” Guiher continues. Was there extra roof capacity designed in to enable the hanging of conveyors? Even if the roof is over-designed for the idea of hanging conveyors from it, it’s easy to, with a single or double line of conveyor, bring that roof to capacity. That could make future expansion impossible.”

Mezzanines present another set of little-known requirements. A mezzanine is not allowed to exceed one-third the area of the room housing it. When adding a level of mezzanine, it’s easy to exceed that limit.

Still, Guiher admits the process of getting a building permit is 50 percent political and 50 percent technical.

“If you are from out of town and attempting to get a building permit, chances are the building officials will make sure every ‘i’ is dotted and every ‘t’ crossed,” he continues. “In some areas of the country it’s based on whom you know. You walk in, pay your money, and walk out with a building permit.”

Geoff Sisko, senior vice president and principal of Gross & Associates, suggests you get all the local regulators in on a project at the very first stages.

“Do this when you first come up with designs,” he advises. “Don’t surprise them with anything. This establishes a cooperative environment. We’ve had people set up racks and the inspector says ‘You don’t have permits’ and they lock the doors. They’re the ones interpreting the federal, state and local codes.”

Even if you do your due diligence, you may find yourself between a rock and a hard place. Then you may have to choose between the less distressing of two ugly options.

“When you’re talking about fire suppression and sprinkler systems, you have several people playing in that field,” Sisko says. “One is your insurance company. Then you have Underwriters Laboratories and the local code official. Sometimes the insurance company is tougher and sometimes the local code is tougher.”

Local architects are a good source of information on the rules of the game. They’ll know the hot buttons. Dealing with these people informally on an informational basis can be very helpful, Sisko concludes.

Once you make the acquaintance of these key players, here are some questions you might want to ask about your material handling project:

1. How will existing fire protection systems, electrical systems and data and voice communications systems be affected?

2. Will your existing water service suffice or will you have to install a fire pump to deliver sufficient pressure?

3. If taking over a facility with existing racks from a previous tenant, ask if those racks are suitable for your product lines. Are the slab and soil adequate to support your loads or are footers required?

4. Increasing your warehouse size or activity may create the situation where you are unwittingly handling hazmats, depending on your location in the U.S. Can you store these products in the existing warehouse or will you need to build a separate hazmat room? Find out what your community considers a hazmat and in what quantities.

5. Where do you need in-rack sprinklers? Every fire marshal in the country puts his own spin on that.

Now that you’ve been sensitized to some of the regulatory minutia at the local level, the following reports will cover the regulatory picture as it relates to several broader areas of material handling logistics. Each section includes a roundup of regulations and standards-setting activities to keep your eye on in the upcoming months and years. These regs will affect how you ship, how you automate, how you handle material and how you manage people and product.

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