Warehouse spaces get dirty – it’s a fact of life in the supply chain world. Managing indoor warehouse environments is an increasingly demanding prospect, while volume, traffic, and product complexities all seem to be steadily increasing for most businesses at the same time. The benefits of achieving and maintaining a clean warehouse space are unignorable, and in this article, we’ll explain these benefits as well as several suggested approaches on how to achieve them in your operation.
Environmental Quality Management in Warehouses
Maintaining a clean warehouse environment is a large topic of discussion that is driven by four key motivators:
- Indoor Air Quality – especially in geographic areas that experience moderate weather or pollution conditions (with lots of airborne dust, particulates, smog, etc), keeping the ‘outside out’ is a major objective in most warehouse operations.
- Employee Comfort and Health – providing comfortable working spaces for staff is not only a social expectation, but also a legally-enforced operating requirement of all employers.
- Operational Safety and Reliability – worker safety requirements span OSHA, workers’ compensation, and liability insurance interests, and also directly ties to business reliability (i.e. as safety issues go up, operating reliability goes down).
- Product and Material Quality – poorly-kept warehouse spaces can directly impact the quality of the goods being stored, and can in turn lead to product/material degradation that further contributes to poor warehouse cleanliness, customer returns and rejects, and hard-to-turn product lots.
With all of these pressures pushing warehouse managers to adopt robust cleaning practices, where’s the best place to start?
We suggest that managers first identify what debris and soil risks exist in their particular operation, which might involve a simple full-facility walkdown, or a more in-depth environmental quality study by an industrial hygienist. General dust, vehicle exhaust fumes, mold spores, outdoor pollution, and many other risk factors affront most warehouse spaces, and many of these soil types require targeted abatement to manage or eliminate. By far, general dust can be considered the most common type of indoor contaminate experienced across the material handling sector, so we’ll pick this as our focus for the remainder of the article.
Below, we’ll offer several suggestions towards managing indoor dust and particulates. Please note that these suggestions can also help with other soils types, and should be broadly applied as you develop your indoor warehouse cleanliness program.
The design of certain warehouse infrastructure components directly play a role in combatting outdoor soils before they ever make it inside. Launching a warehouse cleanliness program to manage dust should start by evaluating opportunities to stop problems before they begin – that is, to implement or bolster fixed infrastructure features in your facility that help reduce incoming dust loads, as described below.
Central Vacuum Systems
If outside dust and dirt weren’t enough to manage around a warehouse, often the materials being handled also contribute their own loose soils that have to be cleaned up. First, products that sit for extended periods of time accumulate surface debris, creating dusty areas that are often forgotten about or ignored. When your warehouse is the recipient of these types of slow-moving packages, you’ll often inherent such soils as a result.
Secondly, certain products and packaging themselves generate nuisance soils while being handled or in static storage. Building materials, agricultural products, bulk textiles and paper products, and even wooden pallets naturally break down over time, contributing to indoor dust. In storage areas where such particulate loads naturally occur, central vacuum systems with collection hoods and hose wands are often installed to help contain soils before they proliferate. This is especially useful in warehouses that are fed directly from adjacent manufacturing lines, where central vacuum systems are used as an active dust control barrier touching materials as they are transferred into storage. Products that seem to create their own dust out of thin air – such as concrete sacks or tile packages – can have central vacuum wand drops installed right next to their storage locations, so that operators can quickly vacuum up loose dust when walking by.
Next to building HVAC, dock doors are the next most common source of outdoor soil ingression into the warehouse. Dock doors remain open for large parts of the day, and any opening around the perimeter of the door and trailer are potential spaces that can introduce dust, rainwater, and airborne contaminants (including truck exhaust fume) into the space. Ventilation systems are typically designed to positively pressurize a building such that air only flows from inside the building to outside, which would naturally push any contaminants around dock doors outside as well. However, in practice this is rarely the case, where building pressures fall to neutral or even negative compared to outside, which can in fact pull outdoor soils into the building through dock openings.
Dock Seals and Shelters are physical barrier devices installed around building dock doors, typically constructed of compressible materials that shroud the rear of a trailer as it locks into a dock bay, actively sealing the annular space where air leaks would occur. Some seals include local air blowers as well, forcefully pressurizing the seal to assure that outside soils cannot flow into the warehouse. This concept is similar to air curtains over normal man-doors, which activate fans to blow air outward whenever the door is open –
– both door seals and air curtains should be used at frequently-opened door locations to keep outside soils at bay.
Ventilating warehouse spaces (and any other commercial building) serves to make indoor environments both comfortable for employees, as well as minimally-impactful to the materials being stored. In their most basic form, building ventilation systems are designed to bring in fresh outside air and push out harmful respiratory byproducts (such as carbon dioxide), odors, and airborne particulates that otherwise would become captive within occupied spaces. Because warehouses are predominantly thought of as storage areas, their ventilation designs often do not include the filtration or conditioning features that you’d expect in commercial and residential buildings. This means that unfiltered outside air is constantly brought in from outside, and with it, the potential to contain airborne particulates and soils.
Servicing your building’s ventilation system, cleaning or replacing filters, confirming proper airflow and pressure, adding humidity controls, adjusting temperature settings, and adding advanced air purification equipment are all potential ways that you can help your ventilation system to combat indoor dust accumulation.
Don’t forget, commercial ventilation systems also need to be periodically cleaned to remove dust that builds up in their equipment enclosures and ducting.
As much as we’d all prefer to be free of cleaning duties, there is only so much that building infrastructure can do to hold soils at bay. With the above fixed infrastructure improvements complete, our warehouse is now properly defended against soils making their way into the building in large quantities. But, that does not mean all soils are eliminated – dust and loose particulates will still find their way in through normal human and material handling activities. To further address warehouse dust, we must now turn to operational solutions to be carried out by staff.
Assigned Cleaning Duties
Ongoing active housekeeping policies extend the responsibility for maintaining a clean, safe warehouse space to all employees. Providing cleaning stations and supplies throughout the facility encourages staff to clean-as-they-go, and assigning areas or types of cleaning to all staff (no matter how large or small of a task) helps work towards maintaining a minimum level of cleanliness at all times, where dust is never allowed to pile up in any significant volume. This item doesn’t need much more description – staff should help clean, and often!
Utilizing cleaning vehicles such as floor sweepers and scrubbers provides a fast, consistent method of combating soil loads that accumulate in a warehouse. That is, at least in open areas where vehicles are able to be pushed or driven across. Where ongoing cleaning duties (as discussed above) can tackle small areas at a time, these cleaning vehicles can be used to scour large areas of warehouse floor quickly, most often nightly during low traffic times.
- Sweeper vehicles use rotating brushes and onboard vacuum systems to brush up dust that settles onto floors throughout the day. Some Sweepers include advanced options such as a dust control misting system and advanced exhaust air filtration.
- Scrubber vehicles use water, cleaning agents, and physical pressure to forcefully scrub and clean floor areas. Typically, a floor scrubber has a trailing vacuum rail that picks up residual cleaning water left on the ground as well, safely addressing slip hazards as it goes. Advanced scrubber options include heated water delivery; high-pressure, multi-head scrubbing action; integral sweeping heads (for combo sweeping and scrubbing); and even autonomous self-driving cleaning!
Ingress Points & Traffic
Soils have to come from somewhere, and aside from the naturally-decaying products mentioned earlier in the article, that source is outside. We discussed the use of building systems to limit dust and debris pulled in from outside air, which leaves the next largest path that debris enters the warehouse as being transferred in via physical traffic. Forklifts, material handling vehicles, product and packaging loads, and human foot traffic all act as potential sources for dirt, particulates, dust, pollen, and other soils to be tracked inside. Soils that transfer in this manner tend to be heavier and larger in nature, making them more difficult to clean up. The solution towards physically-introduced soils is to identify and treat the traffic stream before or right at its entry point into the warehouse. Operational approaches to controlling ingress points include keeping interior and exterior forklifts captive to their respective areas, requiring employee boot and clothing changes inside, inspecting for and cleaning excessively soiled materials as they’re received, and constant ongoing housekeeping at dock and ramp areas.
We hope that this discussion on Managing Warehouse Cleanliness has been helpful to your commercial material handling needs. Fairchild Equipment is the Upper Midwest’s premier Material Handling Equipment and Service resource, with headquarters in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and 11 locations in 5 states ready 24/7 to serve your needs. For more information or to discuss which Warehouse Optimization solution might be best for you, please send us a message or call us at (844) 432-4724.