Tips for Keeping Ag Warehouses and Distribution Centers Safe, Compliant, and Productive

For the agricultural industry, storage and warehousing is essential to hold and preserve goods from the time they are produced until they shipped to distribution centers and eventually to retailers for consumption.  This includes a wide variety of fresh produce, grains and meat products whether in an ambient environment, refrigerated or frozen state.  The right storage environment protects the quality of perishable and semi-perishable inventory until it reaches the market.

Proper storage also helps to stabilize prices by enhancing the ability to adjust supply and demand over time.  In addition, because some agricultural goods have seasonal demand, storage becomes necessary so production can continue uninterrupted.

However, while it was once common for agriculture warehouse and distribution center managers to purchase standard storage racks that could be “quick-shipped” from rack manufacturers’ stocked inventory, this is occurring less often as racking becomes more specialized and regulations stricter.

Today, ag storage rack systems are generally considered a building-like element, so are often subject to a variety of federal, state, and local regulations.  These ordinances are continuing to evolve – perhaps none more so than seismic standards – and can become a pitfall for warehouse managers unfamiliar with them. 

When ag rack systems store flammable products or raw materials, such as pesticides, fertilizers, their chemical components, or ag products that emit potentially flammable airborne dust, special care is also required.

As a consequence, ag warehouse and distribution center managers should seek expert guidance from a qualified design professional whenever the racking, foundation, or warehouse infrastructure must accommodate unusual stress, loading, function, or other non-standard factors.

“Ordering quick-ship pallet racks is convenient, but should be limited to use with non-flammable, non-hazardous product stored inside buildings in low-risk seismic regions,” says Arlin Keck, an engineer at Steel King Industries, a designer and manufacturer of warehouse storage racks, pallet racks and material handling/safety products since 1970. 

“Usually, with quick-ship racks, there is a maximum pallet load limit that the racking can handle and a maximum bay load limit that the racking and the existing warehouse floor can handle.  There is also usually a six-to-one height-to-depth ratio placed on the racking,” adds Keck.  “Any rack outside of these parameters typically requires a qualified design professional’s review.”

Even when the quick-ship rack is appropriate for an ag warehouse or distribution center, there may be a need for expert input if there are special circumstances – for example, if rack installation occurs on a sloping floor.

Despite greater warehouse complexity and evolving regulations, understanding a few key distinctions about racking will help ag warehouse managers to keep their facilities cost effectively safe, compliant, and productive. 

Among the key distinctions to understand are seismic standards and environmental concerns for rack-supported buildings. 

Seismic and Environmental Issues

Because ag storage racks are considered building-like structures according to the International Building Code, and are represented as such in the Rack Manufacturer’s Institute (RMI) Standard, racks need to be designed to the local seismic requirements just like a building.

Since the RMI is the recognized U.S. specification for the design, testing and utilization of industrial steel storage racks, responsible warehouse managers will want their racks to meet this recognized standard for seismic design.

RMI created the R-Mark Certification Program as a way for storage rack users to clearly identify those rack manufacturers whose components and design are in accordance with the RMI Specifications.  Steel King is one of a select number of rack manufacturers that holds an active R-Mark License, and is a licensed fabricator in Los Angeles County, which has some of the strictest seismic codes in the nation.

While all U.S. states have some potential for earthquakes, 42 of the 50 states have a reasonable chance of experiencing damaging ground shaking from an earthquake in 50 years, which is generally considered the lifetime of a building.

Another reason for ag warehouse managers to seek a design professional’s input is the fact that seismic zone designations are changing.  The United States Geological Survey (USGS) uses ground acceleration values, referred to as Seismic Design Categories (SDC) from A to F.

With seismic requirements increasing in many parts of the country and with a better understanding of structural performance during an earthquake event, these standards will continue to evolve, placing more demand on the rack design.

“Seismic separation is another requirement for racks placed within an existing warehouse,” says Keck.  “This means the rack needs to be a certain distance away from the building columns so they will not collide during an earthquake.  In high seismic regions, special inspection is typically required.  An independent inspector will watch the installation and verify proper bolt tightening, especially the anchor bolt, along with checking for rack damage and missing or poor welds.”

Outdoor ag racking as well as rack-supported structures must also be designed to account for wind, rain, and snow loads. 

In hurricane prone regions, for example, outdoor ag rack and rack-supported structures must be designed to withstand the force of high-speed winds in addition to standard product and dead loads.

When heavy snowfall is prevalent, the outdoor ag rack and rack-supported structures must accommodate the accumulated weight of both snow and snow drifts, which occur when wind pushes snow up against taller structures or towers.

In all such unusual environmental conditions, of course, it is essential to consult with a professional about incorporating necessary safety factors into the rack design.

Engineered Systems

By definition, an engineered system is any non-standard storage rack that requires special design considerations.  This can include a variety of ag rack types and safety equipment that is semi-customized or actually custom-designed specifically to the warehouse application.

In terms of safety, ag racking of course must be designed for any unusual stresses, loads, or functions placed upon it.  It must also meet applicable fire codes and insurance requirements.  For instance, ag racking loaded with flammable products would require certain accommodations to assure adequate fire detection, containment, and suppression.

While there is no denying that purchasing quick-ship racking is convenient for many standard ag applications, the truth is that many larger, more complex warehouse applications today require expert input from a design professional.  This is almost always the case when it is necessary to coordinate with integrators as well as various safety and trade professionals under deadline.  Troubles often occur when someone decides that it is quicker and cheaper to buy quick-ship racking when the application really calls for an engineered ag system.

So, when optimal storage, material flow, safety and compliance is required in an ag warehouse or distribution center, proactive managers will get the help they need up front to avoid costly surprises, delays, or retrofits.

For more info on optimizing warehouse storage and production, contact Steel King Industries, 2700 Chamber St., Stevens Point, WI 54481; call 800-826-0203; email: or visit