Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Store design puts profit ahead of safety

Four workers sustained minor injuries on Saturday when several sets of shelves at a Windsor Plywood in Edmonton collapsed domino-style. The shelving units were six feet wide, up to 20 feet tall, and full of thousands of pounds of lumber. It is something of a miracle that no one was killed by the shelf collapse.

It is unclear what caused the shelves to tip over. One employee reported a worker had leaned a ladder against a unit, causing it to topple over and creating a cascading effect. I’m surprised this would cause a shelving unit to topple. Most shelves are bolted down. My first thought was a forklift error would be the only way to generate enough force to topple a shelf.

The employees told reporters that the shelves were not bolted to the floor. This is surprising given that the tipiness of shelving units is a well know hazard (hell, IKEA gives you anchors if you buy a bedroom dresser taller than three feet!). Dave Greenfield, the owner of the store, asserts the shelves were bolted down. Perhaps there were unusual circumstances at play (e.g., structural weakness plus the force of the ladder). We’ll have to wait (likely a year or more) for the OHS report to come out.

The media coverage focused mostly on the event and the proximate cause of the incident (i.e., employee on ladder). It is worthwhile giving some thought to the root causes of this incident. The crush hazard in this store was ultimately created by the employer’s decision to stack stock on high shelves (a common practice in DIY stores). 

The reason employers do this is to maximize their profitability: the entire store becomes retail space with excess stock stored above the shoppers and workers (instead of in a separate stockroom space). The risk this employer choice creates for workers (and shoppers) is (normally) attenuated by bolting the shelves down, restricting access to aisles when overhead work is underway, and providing appropriate training for workers using rolling ladders and forklifts to access the stock.

But none of these strategies would be as effective at reducing the risk of workers and shoppers being crushed to death as would limiting shelf height to six or eight feet. Employers, of course, aren't prepared to double their square footage to create an adequate stockroom space in the back of the store. And, in doing so, they choose to trade their workers’ health for greater profitability.

It will be interesting to see the OHS report and (depending on the facts) whether Alberta chooses to fine or prosecute the employer for their stocking practices.

-- Bob Barnetson

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