For much of the United States, January and February present challenges for workers exposed to frigid outdoor temperatures. Personal Protective Equipment and training are imperative. You have to know the warning signs of exposure, but you also need to know how to survive if isolated or trapped. For some people, protection from the cold is a necessity all year long. Their winter temperatures are warmer outside than in their indoor workplace! This is a true story about a forklift driver in a cold storage warehouse who became stranded a mile away from help, how circumstances put her at risk, and how she survived. We'll call her Janet.
Janet has been working at her job as a forklift driver for 15 years. She works at a two million square foot cold storage warehouse for a large post production frozen food company. She is responsible for organizing the frozen pizza pallets on this given day, which happens to be the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. There is only a skeleton crew working, not the 200+ that are usually whizzing around on forklifts like an organized ballet. She is heading to the back end of the very large warehouse (nearly 1.5 miles long) and the furthest away from the truck loading area.
Cold Areas on the Job
The ambient temp in this cold storage facility ranges from 38 degrees in the refrigerated area to -70 in the blast freezer section. Her goals today are to move 90 pallets of pizza to 8 trucks to turn some inventory before the holiday slowdown begins. As she is driving from cooler to cooler, Janet is noticing her battery charge light is flickering as it usually does, but she doesn't pay much attention to it. Janet is focused on getting this done to help out the inventory control manager who's on the Holiday Task Force. If she can get this pallet movement completed over the holiday she will really look like a hero to her direct report.
As Janet gets to the very far end of the warehouse, the final temperature in the frozen section is -5F ambient. But she had to go through 5 other coolers to get there, with some as low as -70F. She finds the pizza pallets and starts to move them. Just then, the forklift stops working. All lights on the dashboard are on, and it is dead. Janet is nearly a mile away from the bay doors, and there is a skeleton crew (less than 10 people in the entire warehouse). It is a maze of pallet racking, and only the less experienced employees are working, as they have the least seniority in the company. She starts to panic, wondering how she is going to get all the way back to the bay doors knowing she has to walk through all the coolers and freezers.
Keep a "Hot Box" for Emergency Situations
Janet opens the "hot box" on her forklift. All seasoned fork lifters in this company have assembled a cooler that sits on the motor housing to keep things warm from the engine heat. Inside the hot box is a carafe of coffee, 2 energy bars, an apple, 2 sandwiches, a portable air horn, and 3 hot packs for her gloves. She tries to remember a training session she had many years ago about the hazards of working in a cold storage facility. It was so long ago, but a few things stuck. She opens an energy bar, dips it in the coffee, and puts the entire bar in her mouth, and remembers, KEEP YOUR FACE and HANDS protected with cold weather work gear. So she has a very warm mouthful and covers her face with her blast freezer facemask (ski mask style, made from polar fleece).
Janet then starts the walk at a slow but consistent pace remembering to not overexert, another recollection from her training. She keeps the air horn handy in case she sees another driver. As she moves from cooler to cooler, Janet continues to eat and sip coffee. The apple serves its purpose, as the sugar helps her retain moisture in her mouth and throat.
Janet gets about halfway back to the loading dock and hears a forklift. Using her air horn, she blows 3 short blasts (the signal for HELP), again relying on her memory of training she took so many years ago. She sees the forklift. It's a few aisles over and drives right by her, never stopping. Janet's face and hands are getting stiffer. She decides to sit for a minute, drinking the remaining coffee and eating the last energy bar. After letting it settle a bit, she keeps moving. Finally, she sees the bay doors. She reaches the maintenance office and goes in to warm up.
Being very thankful, Janet gets on the intercom and pulls the lunch horn for all areas in the facility. When all the drivers have gathered in the lunchroom, she explained what happened. Since they are all fairly new to the company, they review and agree on a system of communication that does not rely on radios that may not work after continuous exposure to low temperatures. That will get them through their shift safely.
Procedural Safety Improvements
After the holiday was over, Janet spoke to her direct report and explained what happened. From that point forward, changes were made to improve safety and survivability in their workplace.
- 7 emergency exit doors were installed on all east walls of every cooler.
- Hot boxes were installed on every forklift.
- Forklifts were equipped with man-down alarms to signal when someone is in trouble and in need of assistance.
- Air horn training class was scheduled for all employees to ensure they understand protocol.
- Classes conducted by the local ORR Safety Account Manager were scheduled to refresh employee knowledge of the hazards of working in cold weather.
The cost of the improvements and new processes for this facility was $56,000. As a result of their new initiative to mitigate the risk of exposure hazards, the company's insurance rates dropped $47,000/year. Because Janet stepped up and used her experience to immediately stop work so that her coworkers could be immediately informed of risk and protocol, she earned the appreciation of company management and improvements that made her company a safer place to work. In Janet's new role as Safety Trainer, she now works with her local ORR Safety Account Manager on a regular basis to keep employees informed and equipped.