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Safer sorting and grading on conveyors

Sorting and grading goods on conveyors saves time and money and helps to keep the quality high. But it comes with the risk of serious injury.

What is sorting and grading on conveyors?

A conveyor moves materials from one location to another. It can be fixed in place, or it can be mobile.

A conveyor can be used to move:

  • vegetables, fruits, and other products for processing, freezing, and packing
  • goods into bulk storage facilities, such as silos
  • bulk quantities of goods directly into trucks for transport.

The sorting and grading of product happens from slow moving conveyor systems. Typically, a worker stands alongside the conveyor and reaches across the belt to remove product that is unsuitable for processing or packing, such as blemished or undersized vegetables and fruit.

The speed and width of the conveyor depends upon what is being sorted.

What are the risks of sorting and grading on conveyors?

Sorting and grading is a manual task that can happen with or without mechanical assistance. The process is similar, whether the conveyor is fixed in place or mobile. Workers usually stand close to the conveyor to perform the work required.

  • Incorrect, inadequate, or poorly maintained guarding on the conveyor can cause unnecessary exposure to items rotating at speed, and the risk of worker entrapment or entanglement.
  • Unguarded pinch points mean fingers, hands and clothing can get caught and pulled into the conveyor.
  • Injuries can be as minor as a blister or as severe as amputation or death.

There are other risks too. Some conveyor widths cause workers to bend forward, reach and twist their shoulders for significant amounts of time, without a break.

  • Repetitive movement of the wrists can cause muscle, tendon, and nerve damage.
  • Standing, bending, and moving awkwardly and repetitively can cause back, shoulder and neck pain and problems.
  • Lifting heavy items incorrectly can cause back and shoulder injuries.

In addition, sorting and grading on conveyors presents a risk of noise-induced hearing loss.

Mobile conveyors have extra risks, including runovers when conveyors are being moved from one place to another. If they are not properly secured in place, the conveyor could roll or move during sorting and grading and injure workers.

In Queensland’s vegetable growing industry, 3% of injuries are serious or fatal.

How do I manage the risks?

Workers and managers should work together to reduce the risks of sorting and grading on conveyors.

For workers

As a worker, you must:

  • take care of your own health and safety as well as the health and safety of others
  • cooperate with management to meet health and safety requirements and reduce risks.

For businesses

As an employer or business owner, you have legal responsibilities as outlined in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 for the health and safety of every worker and visitor.

Following the four-step risk management process below will help your business meet its responsibilities under work health and safety laws.

Four steps to manage risk

The first step is to identify the hazards for workers.

This can be done by:

  • inspecting the equipment and the process—check all machine components and think about the tasks that workers are doing
  • talking to or surveying your workers—get their ideas about the potential risks and hazards and find ways to include workers who won’t speak up in a group or who have language or reading or writing barriers
  • looking at your own records—workers’ compensation claims, recorded incidents, sick leave and worker complaints.

Next, assess the level of risk posed by each hazard. The risk level is determined by:

  • how serious the potential harm is
  • how likely it is to happen.

You can use this risk assessment template (DOCX, 0.02 MB) to guide you and record your assessments.

The law requires you to eliminate the risks if practical, or to minimise them as much as possible.

Work through the hierarchy of controls to choose the control that most effectively eliminates or minimises the risks. This may involve a single control measure or combination of two or more different controls.

Find the hierarchy of controls in How to manage work health and safety risks code of practice 2021 (PDF, 0.65 MB).

Possible effective solutions include:

  • ensuring all necessary guards are in place and in excellent condition
  • making sure emergency stop switches are working and marked
  • moving mobile conveyors with care, and properly securing them in place before work commences
  • using automatic electric sorters instead of manual methods
  • installing a physical barrier so workers can’t reach too far forward
  • choosing narrow conveyors that only need minimal forward reaching
  • raising the height of the worker with an adjustable stand, while taking care not to add a slip, trip or fall hazard.

Other solutions that rely on workers cooperation are:

  • keeping walkways clear, removing produce from floors, cleaning spills immediately
  • working in pairs on opposite sides of the conveyor to reduce the need for reaching
  • rotating workers between different jobs that use different skills and parts of their bodies
  • wearing suitable personal protective equipment, including ear protection, and clothing should not be loose fitting.

In addition, workers should complete staff-specific training, so they know how to perform their job safely. Safe work procedures should also be in place.

You should regularly review your control measures. Don’t wait for something to go wrong. If necessary, change or adjust your approach. The aim is to maintain a work environment that is without risks to health and safety.

Work health and safety laws require you to review controls:

  • when you become aware a control measure is not working effectively
  • before a change that might introduce a new risk
  • when you find a new hazard or risk
  • when your workers tell you that a review is needed
  • after a health and safety representative requests a review.