Pallet Material and Material Handler Safety

Pallets are constructed of a variety of materials. The most commonly used material for pallets is timber, although pallets of other materials such as plastic, presswood, paper, and metal have become increasingly common as well.

As a material handler, you should be supplied with pallets that are correctly specified for the task at hand. For example, if you are piling obsolete computers on a pallet, and the pallet will have to be placed in a storage rack at some point subsequently, the pallet should be rated for racking of that load. Not all pallets are equal, however, when it comes to requirements like racking, and it may prove useful to understand a few basics about performance characteristics of these pallet materials.

It should also be cautioned, however, that material alone is not an adequate determinant of pallet performance, which is also influenced by pallet design and condition (damage). None the less, understanding the basics of pallet material is useful information for material handlers.

Timber Pallets

wood half pallet
Stiff, easily fabricated and readily available, wood pallets account for around 90% of pallets used in North America. Rick LeBlanc, licensed to

Timber is a stiff, easy-to-use and readily available material that is used to make comparatively inexpensive pallets. Over 90% of all pallets used in the U.S. are made of timber.

The performance characteristics of the commonly used pallets such as 48x40” GMA pallet, CHEP, EPAL and others are widely understood among workers. Such pallets are used in consumer products distribution, and when in good condition, are appropriate for the palletisation of appropriate consumer products unit loads.

In any application, if a material handler is faced with an unfamiliar type of pallet, that worker should seek further clarification in determining if the pallet is appropriate for intended use.

Timber pallets are often heavier than those of other materials such as plastic, and are more prone to damage. As such, handling precautions pertinent to pallets of all materials, including personal protective equipment, lifting technique and visual pallet inspection, should be emphasized.

Plastic Pallets

plastic pallet iGPS

Ask grocery industry employees about what type of pallet is easiest to manhandle, most would likely vote for plastic. Plastic pallets are generally lighter and smoother than their wooden counterparts, but generally speaking, they come with limitations that should be considered by the material handler.

Plastic is usually considered to be less stiff as a pallet material than timber. With this in mind, one should not assume that any plastic pallet can be used for a load that is to be racked in a free span without the pallet deforming under load. Distribution pallets of the 9-leg variety are typically only meant to be loading platforms for distribution of goods to retail outlets, for example, and not racked.

Newer generation plastic pallets made by many leading plastic pallet manufacturers are now increasingly designed for racking, but this should not be assumed without checking first.

It should go without saying - do not cut your plastic pallets in half. I see this happen at retail outlets where pallets are cut in half for special displays, and it is not a good idea. Some plastic pallets have steel reinforcement bars in them, and some pallets may contain decaBDE fire retardants.

Paper-Based Pallets

paper pallets
Paper-based pallets increasingly are being designed for heavier loads and stacking.

When it comes to moving pallets manually, material handlers welcome lightweight paper pallets. Paper-based pallets are used for special applications such as air freight, international shipments, and other situations where the best solution is recycling in the baler immediately after being emptied. Paper-based pallets are prized for their light weight, sanitary condition (usually only used once) and ease of recycling. Paper products are the most widely recycled material in industry, and so paper-based pallets readily funnel into this recycling stream.

Generally speaking, paper-based pallets are not rackable, although newer designs are coming onto the scene that may provide this functionality, especially in supported racking. Paper-based pallets should not be used in applications where they will get wet and therein compromise their structural integrity.

Presswood Pallets

presswood pallets
Litco Internatonal

Molded presswood pallets are lightweight units used by the U.S. Postal Service and others as a loading platform. Like plastic 9-leg pallets they are nestable, and which offers great freight utilization for empty pallet shipments. Presswood pallets should not be free span racked, nor like other 9-leg pallets, double stacked without a hard surface upon which to rest the pallet legs.

Steel Pallets

steel pallets
Thin gauge steel pallets are now lighter, and still provide great durability.

Steel pallets are generally very stiff, and in the past were considered to be heavy. Newer designs utilizing thin gauge steel can be used to make pallets that are significantly lighter and less expensive.

As metal pallets can be heavy, care should be exercised during manual handling.

A Final Word on Pallet Material and Worker Safety

PECO pallet closeup
Rick Leblanc, licensed to
While pallet material can provide the material handler with some useful background about the characteristics of the pallet, the bottom line should be, that if the pallet is different than the pallet normally approved for the task, or if the pallet is damaged, the pallet handler should proceed with caution. Set damaged pallets aside for repair or recycling, and seek further information before using unfamiliar pallet specifications.