October 16, 2001 - Safety Law Hits Home Depot, Wal-Mart

A new safety law in California is taking aim at the potentially dangerous warehouse environment at Home Depot, Wal-Mart and similar retailers.

The law, approved last week by Gov. Gray Davis, requires retailers to use netting, rails or other restraints to prevent merchandise from falling off tall storage racks. Stores also have to set up safety zones to protect shoppers when workers are using forklifts or other machinery to remove products from shelves.

The legislation follows a string of serious injuries at "big box" retailers across the country. Massachusetts lawmakers are mulling a similar safety measure.

According to court records, hundreds of customers have been hurt, and a few killed, by falling merchandise at U.S. retailers. In some cases, customers accidentally toppled products off shelves. In other incidents, workers on forklifts knocked heavy merchandise onto shoppers.

The new California requirements will affect 148 Home Depot stores in that state. Home Depot spokesman Don Harrison said Monday that executives were assessing potential changes to safety procedures in California. Earlier this year, the Atlanta-based retailer beefed up safety measures nationwide in response to several high-profile accidents, including three deaths in an eight-month period.

In late 1999, a 79-year-old woman at a Los Angeles store died after a 19-year-old forklift operator knocked over a load of lumber that hit her in the head.

Six months later, a 3-year-old girl was killed in Idaho when a stack of kitchen countertops fell from a forklift. A few months after that incident, a shopper in Connecticut was killed when a pallet of landscaping timbers fell on him.

Serious injuries in other incidents have hit the wallets of retailers hard this year.

Wal-Mart agreed to pay $11.4 million to a 30-year-old man who sustained brain injuries after he was hit by falling boxes of toys at a Las Vegas store.

And a Baton Rouge, La., jury awarded $1.45 million to a tile layer who was left permanently disabled after a bag of sand fell on him at a Home Depot store.

Home Depot named its first safety officer this year and hired 130 managers to monitor safety measures at its 1,200-plus stores. Home Depot also cut back on forklift traffic during the day.

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