Pallets: Backbone of Handling, Bane of Handlers

March 1, 2011
You can’t live without them, but it’s hard to live with them unless you establish good handling guidelines in your plant or distribution center. Make your life easier with these.

Pallets allow unitized loads of product to be transported and stored in an efficient manner. But they can also be a royal pain when not in use. They can become an obstacle to efficiency because they get in the way, they add clutter and can be unsightly. Without housekeeping discipline they can also be a hazard.

There are efficient ways to store and use pallets, however. It can be done safely, neatly, and they can be readily available when needed. By taking a few simple steps, you can reduce clutter, free up operating area and increase the efficiency of your receiving and shipping docks.

How many empty pallets do you need to operate efficiently? For unloading, staging, and put-away? For order consolidation and shipping?

No matter how many pallets you need, you never have the right number on hand. It’s either feast or famine when it comes to pallets.

Pallet storage can consume a lot of space in your shipping and receiving areas. This space is generally limited and to lose any of it to dead storage is a waste.

So where can you store pallets indoors and have them readily accessible?

Between the dock doors – This would tend to be your operating supply of pallets that you are adding to and subtracting from throughout the day. This area is not generally used and is near to where the pallets are needed. Be sure that by using this area you are not creating a safety hazard by blocking access to your dock doors or limiting line of sight in a busy area.

Over the dock doors – Utilize the unused air space above the dock doors by installing rack to store the pallets. The rack can be cantilevered off of the dock wall or rack frames can be placed between the dock doors. Be sure to protect the rack frames from impact damage by dock equipment. This is longer term storage and not for day-to-day use.

Block storage along a wall – Multiple pallets deep by multiple-pallet-stacks-wide storage without aisles will allow you to store many pallets in anticipation of future requirements. Be aware that this is a potential fire hazard and while not flammable, if a fire were to start, you will have a bonfire on your hands. You should check with your insurance carrier to see if they have any limitations on the storage of pallets.

In racks within your storage system – This is not the best solution. You are giving up inventory storage locations. It’s best to anticipate your need and store only the minimum number and minimize the time they will be stored.

If you are going to keep and store pallets for future use, keep the following in mind:

Remove loose boards from pallets – The loose or broken boards of wooden pallets can catch on items and displace a load or damage inventory. They can also hit a person, causing an injury or a lost time accident.

Limit the stack height of pallets – If the stack is being manually loaded or unloaded, limit the stack height to between waist and chest height. This minimizes the lifting needed to load the stack. It also minimizes the distance a pallet is dropped when unloading. If the stacks are for pure storage you can go higher, but not to the point where they become unstable. A better quality pallet will allow you to safely stack higher.

Dispose of or recycle scrap pallets – If a wooden pallet is no good, put it in the dumpster or better yet, recycle it. Recycling goes for plastic, too. There is no reason to keep them around. They take space and are a safety hazard because stacks of scrap pallets are typically unstable and have broken boards and nails sticking out.

Minimize outside storage – Pallets that are stored outside can be an eyesore. If not secured they are targets for theft or vandalism. Keep in mind, though, when they are brought in from the outside, you bring the current weather in with them along with unwanted hitch hikers such as hornets, snakes, insects, and other creatures.

Standardize on one size and type of pallet – Although no universally accepted standards for pallet dimensions exist, the most commonly used pallet in the U.S. is the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association (GMA) pallet, which accounts for 30% of all new wood pallets produced in the United States. Nevertheless, within your supplier base you may run into a variety of configurations and conditions. If you can get the pallets that come in and out of your facility down to a single size and configuration you’ll eliminate possible problems within your material handling systems.

Ask yourself this question: Will a 44” deep 4-way entry pallet fit on your 36” deep rack safely or will the rear pallet beam catch in the 4-way entry fork pocket? Can you use two 44” wide pallets in your rack system without damage to the rack or would using 42” wide pallets be better?

Pallets are a necessity. You need them and they need to be available. But too many of them staged in the wrong place can hinder an operation. Walk through your receiving and shipping docks or anywhere else you’re storing pallets and ask yourself the following;

• Are they neatly stored?

• Are they out of the way?

• Can I get to them when needed?

• Do they really need to be there?

• Is there a better place to store them?

• Are they a potential hazard?

These may be simple questions, but the right answers can mean the difference between a good operation and a great one.

Don Kuzma is an industry analyst based in Cleveland who specializes in distribution center design and management. He can be reached at [email protected].