A view of the looming tray and basket towers ready for shipping in a bakery’s warehouse is reminiscent of the tall Lego structures children build in their rooms. But unlike colorful toy blocks, these pieces are life-size — difficult to reach and even harder to lift. They must be stacked in a consistent and balanced form, or they’ll come crashing down on the builder.

As bakers look to maximize space when storing and moving trays and baskets, workers’ safety should be top of mind to prevent injuries such as muscle strains, broken bones, cuts and bruises. Gary Roberts, company director of Global Bakery Solutions, said employee safety can be compromised by a variety of actions, including repetitive manual handling of full baskets and trays, lifting them onto dollies, broken and damaged dollies, and operators not adhering to good manual handling techniques.

“In some cases, stacks can be higher than a worker of average height can reach,” said John Keane III, director of engineering, AMF Bakery Systems. “In manual stacking scenarios, this can create safety issues with workers having to extend their reach to place baskets on the stack.”

Patrice Painchaud, vice-president of sales and marketing, Rexfab, Inc., recently met with a bagel manufacturer whose employees are required to stack baskets of bagels 19 high. The workers must create half piles and then stack half a pile on top of another before moving it with a dolly.

“Without automation, it’s impossible and dangerous,” Mr. Painchaud said. “You could do maybe 14 high, but still at 14 high, you’ll get injuries.”

Mr. Painchaud also warned bakers to remember worker safety when handling empty baskets, which he said can be just as dangerous as handling ones containing products.

“You can double up the number of baskets — they’re cross-nested — when they’re empty as opposed to when they’re full,” he explained. “Very often you’ll find debris, pieces of metal, pieces of plastic and other foreign materials in these baskets. God forbid there’s a knife that you don’t see because it’s up high, and you have to tilt the tray to bring it down. Automation can solve this issue.”

Automation is also the key to greater efficiency and fewer work injuries in the warehouse, and that can reduce cost for a company.

On the heavy side

There is a difference between moving a tray filled with bagged buns and the same tray layered with tortillas. And that variance is weight, one of distribution’s biggest worker safety challenges.

“The heavier the product is — plus the reach distance required to make a full stack — is where the risk lies,” Mr. Keane noted.

But worker safety isn’t only compromised when products are heavy. It also happens when the weight is unevenly distributed.

“Products that do not easily fit within the basket will allow the product to move and shift, offsetting the weight balance of the basket,” said Bob Harrington, vice-president of sales and marketing, Capway Automation. “With automation, this can be minimized by the type of movement performed.”

It’s also crucial that bakers use strong trays and baskets that fit the type of product.

“They’re putting heavier products in the baskets now — heavier than they’ve ever been,” said Jordon Hale, president, SPF Plastic Group. “You have to have very rigid and strong transportation trays. If not, you will have sagging and broken trays, and through automation, those trays are going to collapse.”

With the cost of transportation still high, bakeries pack trays and trucks to their maximum capacity, especially when it comes to less dense products such as bread and buns.

“There’s a lot of air between light products, so people try to squeeze more products in a basket, squeeze more baskets up high and squeeze more baskets in the trailer period,” Mr. Painchaud said.

This action means added weight, and since truck loading and unloading is a distribution step that hasn’t been automated fully, there is a high potential for injuries.

“When stacking baskets and trays manually, it is imperative to lift properly to reduce the potential for bodily injury,” Mr. Harrington said. “Always get help when lifting above your comfort zone to reduce the potential for injury.”

Despite the lack of automation, Mr. Painchaud sees innovation developing in the near future.

“Technologies are available,” he said. “I see a lot of potential in moving piles of baskets all the way inside the truck.”

Piling on the automation

As automation for trays and baskets evolves, it seeks to meet safety requirements and increase efficiency.

“What if you’re able to fit one extra bag given automation?” Mr. Painchaud said. “How does that equate over time? It’s big savings for the baker.”

Reducing the number of workers in a warehouse can create a more productive and safer environment, he added.

“Headcount at the backend of the bakery is higher than anywhere else,” Mr. Painchaud said. “So, what can be done to automate that to help these people effectively and safely do their job?”

Automation is hands-free most of the time and repetitive, so Mr. Hale said it should eliminate human error such as over-stacking, under-stacking and incorrect stacking. In fact, he added that tray stackers are one of the most simplistic machines on the production line, meaning less operators and room for mistakes and injuries.

Mr. Keane said basket handling equipment has improved because of new technology used to manipulate the baskets and the ability to handle multiple basket designs on the same line.

“Today there are more robotics involved in stacking baskets and trays,” Mr. Harrington noted. “Using the multi-axis robotic allows the system to have more versatility by creating multiple stacks and orders. Increased productivity is realized through automated stacking.”

But automation doesn’t mean injuries can’t happen when operating the equipment.

“Each project, production process and basket and tray type must be studied thoroughly to ensure the design of the automated equipment solution performs at optimum levels,” Mr. Roberts said. This performance includes safe workable access, the ability to meet today’s high throughput plants, reliability without intervention and safe methods for cleaning.

Other advances in technology also mitigate the risk, Mr. Roberts continued.

“New software, control philosophy, electrically interlocked guarding, light curtains and ‘state-of-art’ operator interfaces have been developed alongside the equipment development to ensure consistent reliability in the equipment and its performance, which provides significant reductions in process costs and manual intervention,” he said.

Employee injuries happen, and they’re costly. Automation lessens this risk by reducing manual labor while boosting efficiency so products in these towering stacks of trays and baskets are distributed successfully.