Tornadoes and Warehouse Safety: How to Protect Pallet Racking Systems

Posted on May 2, 2023 - updated on September 14 2023 
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Did you know that, between 2017 and 2021, tornadoes caused nearly 7,2 billion dollars in property damages in the United States?

Tornadoes are among the most destructive natural disasters that can strike any region at any time. They can cause significant damage to buildings and infrastructure, with potentially dangerous consequences, and warehouses are no exception.

With their large structures and expansive interiors, warehouses are particularly vulnerable to the impact of tornadoes, especially their industrial storage systems. The powerful winds associated with these storms and the debris they carry can lead to loss of inventory, equipment, and even life.

Tornado preparedness 

In this article, we’ll explore the following:

  • The effects of tornadoes on warehouses and pallet racking systems.
  • How tornado-induced rack damage can affect warehouse operations.
  • What to do with racks before and after a tornado.
  • Additional preventive measures to minimize the risk of damage and injury.


Consequences of Tornadoes on Warehouses and Pallet Racking Systems

1. Risk of Structural Damage


Structural damage caused by tornadoes

During a tornado, the wind speed can reach up to 300 mph, which can cause significant structural damage to a warehouse, including the roof or walls. Strong winds can even lift the roof off the building and leave the pallet racking systems and warehouse equipment vulnerable to the full impact of the wind.

The force of the wind can be so powerful that it can cause the systems to sway, and if the movement is excessive, it can cause the displacement of pallets and the potential for loads to fall. Pallet racking systems can warp or bend and shift out of position.

ANSI specification limits the out-of-plumb ratio (leaning) to 0.5 inches per 10 feet, meaning that the winds could create ongoing issues that require repairs. Overstocked systems with few gaps can act like walls, exacerbating the problem.


Damage to upright frames and risks to workers

Tornadoes can also cause damage to the upright frames and cross beams that make up pallet racking systems. The frames can be bowed or even collapse, leading to a complete system failure and causing significant damage to the products stored on the racks and the warehouse structure itself.

In addition, tornadoes can create a domino effect, where the failure of one rack can cause others to collapse or topple over. It can cause extensive damage to the warehouse and put employees and first responders at risk.


2. Risk of Debris

During a tornado, debris can become projectiles, traveling at high speeds and causing damage to anything in its path. This debris can be anything from tree branches to pieces of metal from nearby buildings.

Warehouses are particularly vulnerable to debris because they often have large open areas allowing debris to enter the building. It can damage the warehouse’s contents and potentially lead to employee injury or loss of life.

3. Risk of Fire and Hazardous Materials


Fire risk

Tornadoes can also cause electrical power outages, leading to a fire risk. Warehouses often have large amounts of electrical equipment, such as lighting, heating, cooling systems, and machinery.

If electrical systems are damaged during a tornado, it can create a fire risk. The fire risk is high when flammable materials are stored in the warehouse.


Hazardous materials

Many warehouses store hazardous materials, such as chemicals and gases. These materials can pose a significant risk during a tornado if released into the environment. The wind can spread the hazardous material over a large area, potentially causing harm to people and the environment.

How Tornadoes Affect Warehouse Operations Due to Rack Damage

When a tornado strikes a warehouse, it can cause severe damage, incurring costly business losses.

For example, in 2022, a tornado ripped through the Meijer distribution center in Ohio, with the roof and back wall collapsing due to 120-mph winds. Fortunately, no one was injured, but part of the warehouse had to be shut down for repairs and renovations.

In 2022, a tornado ripped through the Meijer distribution center in Ohio.Meijer distribution center in Ohio damaged by a tornado, Source: FOX 7

Tornadoes can significantly impact warehouse operations, mainly due to the damage they can cause to racks.

When a tornado damages or destroys racks, it can lead to significant disruptions in warehouse efficiency that can take days or weeks to recover. The facility may have to shut down temporarily during repairs, which can result in the following: 

  • Lost revenue.
  • Lost productivity.
  • Damaged customer relationships.

Here are some examples of how tornadoes can affect warehouse operations due to rack damage:

1. Loss of Inventory

Significant damage to racking systems can cause inventory loss, hence warehouse revenue loss. When racks are damaged and cannot support the weight of the products stored on them, these may fall off the shelves, rendered unusable. 


2. Reduced Storage Capacity

If racks are damaged but not destroyed, they may still be functional but with reduced storage capacity. The warehouse may be unable to store as much inventory as before the tornado, leading to delays in getting products to customers.


3. Longer Lead Times

The warehouse may need to repair or replace the damaged racks before accepting new shipments. Setbacks in receiving new inventory can contribute to longer customer lead times and delays in getting products to market.


4. Additional Downtime

In addition to the direct damage caused by a tornado, there may be further repercussions from the clean-up and repair efforts. For instance, removing or replacing racks could lead to longer-than-expected interruptions, resulting in extra costs.

5. Safety Concerns

Damage racks may present a safety hazard for workers in the warehouse. For example, if products have fallen off the shelves, they may block aisles or walkways, making it difficult for workers to move around the warehouse safely. It may cause delays in operations and put workers at risk of potential injuries.

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What to Do with Racks Before and After a Tornado

Implementing effective strategies to minimize the tornado’s impact on racks before it strikes and in its aftermath is crucial.

While it’s true that some tornadoes are powerful enough to overcome even the most robust safeguards, taking measures to minimize damage is worthwhile, as not all tornadoes are equally devastating.

Proper planning can help mitigate the potential damage to pallet racking systems, reduce overall costs, and ensure the safety of employees and assets. 

1. Before

Take proactive measures such as the following (which are considered good practices for all situations!): 

Investing in quality racking systems

To ensure the safety and durability of your storage systems, avoid using homemade racks and instead opt for well-designed pallet racks.

Not all racks are built to withstand the forces of nature, including severe weather conditions like high winds. It’s crucial to select a rack that is designed to withstand the environmental risks in your area.

Reinforcing pallet racks

All warehouse racks should always be anchored using anchors that are sized according to the manufacturer’s specifications. During a storm, it can help to reduce the amount of sway experienced by the racking systems caused by high winds.

Ensuring rack stability

It is important to ensure that the diagonal bracing used to reinforce the racks is in good condition. Additionally, conduct load capacity assessments to verify that the racks can withstand the wind forces they may be subjected to.

Keeping a safe distance between racks

Keep enough space (flue space) around pallets to let air flow through instead of pushing against them. It can reduce the wind’s impact on the system. 

Conducting self-assessments and rack inspections

Regular self-assessments of the racking systems can help identify apparent damage or loose/missing bolts and prompt repairs as necessary.

Qualified professionals should conduct rack inspections to identify any structural weaknesses and other potential hazards that can increase the risks of damage during a tornado. By performing regular inspections, issues can be identified before they become more significant problems.

Implementing a maintenance program

A rack safety program can help keep the racks in good condition and reduce the risk of damage caused by tornadoes.


2. After

Warehouse managers should follow their pre-established disaster recovery plan to deal with the aftermath of a tornado, including assessing the damage to racks.

Inspecting Damaged Racks for Safety Hazards

After a tornado, it is essential to inspect the racking systems to determine the extent of the damage. Damaged racks can pose a safety hazard to warehouse employees and damage stored goods. Therefore, they need to be repaired or replaced as soon as possible.

The Need for Qualified Engineer Inspection of Pallet Racking Systems

It’s essential to have a qualified engineer inspect any pallet racking system exposed to a tornado. Even if a pallet racking system appears undamaged after a tornado, it may still be compromised. Small cracks or other imperfections in the frame or beams may not be immediately visible but can weaken the system’s overall structure over time.

Tornado spotted outside a distribution center

Tornado spotted outside Tipp City, Source: Spectrum News 1 OH

Warehouse Preventative Measures to Mitigate the Impact of Tornadoes

Tornadoes can occur with little to no warning, making it challenging to prepare for them. Here are some of the most effective strategies for reducing the impact of tornadoes on warehouses:

1. Planning

If there is enough warning of such a disaster, dangerous chemicals can be unloaded and moved to safer locations to avoid potential spills. 


2. Securing Loose Objects

In a tornado, loose items can become dangerous projectiles during high winds. Before a storm, loose objects, such as tools, boxes, and pallets, should be secured or removed from the warehouse. Any items left in the warehouse should be securely stored on racks using pallet covers or wrapping stock on pallets.

3. Conduct a Risk Assessment

The assessment should identify the potential hazards and assess the risk of storm damage. It should also identify any vulnerabilities in the warehouse and prioritize actions based on the severity of the risk.


4. Develop a Tornado Safety Plan

A comprehensive tornado preparedness plan that includes emergency evacuation procedures, shelter-in-place protocols, and communication procedures is essential. According to OSHA, employers must ensure all warehouse workers know what to do in an emergency and routinely practice shelter-in-place plans. 

5. Secure the Warehouse

Securing the warehouse with solid doors, windows, and roofing materials can help prevent or minimize damage caused by severe weather.

6. Keep Up to Date With Weather Alerts

Weather alerts should be monitored regularly, and staff should be informed of any incoming severe weather.

7. Install Impact-Resistant Doors 

Tornado-resistant doors can protect the warehouse from high winds and debris. They are typically made of heavy-duty materials and are installed with reinforced frames to provide added strength. 


The Importance of Preventive Measures and Professional Support

In conclusion, tornadoes can threaten warehouses, including structural damage, debris, fire, and hazardous materials, resulting in lost revenue, productivity, and customer relationships.

However, taking preventive measures such as securing the racks, conducting regular inspections, and implementing a maintenance program can significantly reduce the impact of tornadoes. By preparing for a tornado, warehouse owners and managers can help protect their employees and minimize the damage to their business operations.

Additionally, collaborating with a reputable rack repair and protection solutions provider can help them prevent or recover from a warehouse disaster caused by a tornado.

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Welcome to the world of Damotech, the first and largest rack safety solutions specialist in North America. With its lines of rack protection and repair products, Damotech strives to put an end to the endless cycle of upright replacement by focusing on warehouse safety and the permanent elimination of recurring rack damage. Through our engineering services, we will help create a safer working environment for you and your employees, bringing you true peace of mind while saving you money in the process.