Good pallet practice

Are current pallets used for handling and transporting drugs and medicines the best they could be, or is there room for improvement? Jim Hardisty, MD,, takes a look at how some of the latest pallets are saving the industry time and money

White rooms of the production area are the most sensitive point in the internal logistics and where the plastic pallets make their most prominent appearance

Pallets have long been a staple product in the pharmaceutical supply chain with manufacturers relying on them for handling packaged goods in production areas, through the warehouse and onwards to distribution centres and wholesalers. Although the role of pallets today remains unchanged, the demands on them are far more rigorous than they have ever been. A greater variety of applications and uses has increased the requirement for pallets to be made from different materials and in different sizes and styles. Lightweight models for easy shipping or strong and durable varieties for repeated use are just a couple of examples. In the pharma sector, the specific need for pallets to be used in sterile environments has led to other innovations.

Looking back over the past five years, the processes for handling pharmaceutical goods on pallets have improved considerably, largely as a result of pallet hygiene being thrust into the spotlight after a number of drug contamination incidents1 were linked to the wooden pallets they were transported on. There was a time, for instance, where traditional wooden pallets were being used in sterile production environments for handling goods: that is wooden pallets that cannot be easily cleaned due to the porous nature of wood; can splinter, leaving pockets where dirt and other bacteria can collect and grow; and contain nails that are susceptible to rust.

Today, the industry as a whole is much more aware of the risks of introducing wooden pallets into clean production sites

Today, the industry as a whole is much more aware of the risks of introducing wooden pallets into clean production sites, and so many manufacturers have switched to using more durable, hygienic plastic pallets that can be repeatedly cleaned due to their smooth, non-absorbent surfaces as well as offering other significant safety advantages.2

Although hygienic plastic pallets are now being used more widely from production areas through to the warehouse, here products are being picked on the plastic pallets and transferred onto wooden pallets for shipping. Most commonly a pallet inverter will be used which lifts and tips a loaded pallet, transferring the packaged goods across from a plastic pallet to a wooden one, but other automatic pallet changers are sometimes used including ‘squeeze and lift’ systems. This transfer process is a timely and costly one that requires special equipment, trained operatives skilled in using it, and also risks causing damage to the packaged goods. Although some damage is easily fixed at an additional cost, for instance torn stretchwrapping, product interference from the equipment piercing or crushing packaging can cause manufacturers costly delays in shipment and in replacing the damaged goods themselves.

Although the industry may not be aware of it, there is now an alternative solution to distributing goods in this way, and that is using the next generation of plastic pallet from start to finish. That means introducing plastic pallets in the production area and using the same pallets through the warehouse for order picking and onwards for shipping.

Using plastic pallets in this way has been tried and tested by pharmaceutical conglomerate Merck3, which in the last couple of years has eliminated wooden pallets from its logistics operation, allowing the company to achieve a cleaner, safer and more economical production line.

Using plastic pallets throughout its entire supply chain has allowed MSD Heist Operations to achieve huge cost savings and promote better hygiene

At MSD Heist Operations in Belgium – Merck’s production facility – there is no compromising on hygiene standards. Packaging areas operate a ‘no access’ policy unless you are wearing the correct white safety clothing and not a trace of dirt or dust is in sight.

MSD Heist Operations makes products that are packed and shipped in more than 150 million packaging units and the material flow processes for pharmaceutical production are extremely complex. Receiving, production and distribution warehouses are spread across three locations. The raw materials and packaging components are transported 10km from the receiving warehouse to the production facility near Antwerp, where they are picked for each order. From the production facility, the finished products are then transported by truck 20 minutes away to the distribution centre from where the medications are then shipped out to customers.

The receiving warehouse manages more than 8,000 different items. Producing pharmaceuticals for many countries requires numerous different forms of packaging, labelling and insert sheets. This means that the receiving warehouse has to deal with approximately 400 raw materials and active ingredients for pharmaceuticals and about 7,600 different packaging components.

Historically, due to the industry’s typically broad supplier structure, more than 1,000 suppliers were delivering packaging components to MSD Heist Operations on various load carriers – mainly wooden pallets – which for sanitary reasons could not be sent right to production, so the products had to be inverted onto hygienic plastic pallets before entering the cleanroom environment.

MSD Heist Operations has reported that employees handle the plastic pallets with astounding ease

Switching from using a combination of wooden and hygienic plastic pallets to using the next-generation of plastic pallets throughout its entire supply chain has allowed MSD Heist Operations to tap huge cost savings and promote better hygiene, as the new pallets can be used by suppliers for delivering packaging components to the production facility, throughout production, and then to ship the finished product to its final destination.

No doubt, the white rooms of the production area are the most sensitive point in the internal logistics and where the plastic pallets make their most prominent appearance: in the packaging areas at the end of each production line. At the zones downstream from the production lines, the medications are packed into larger box units, which are then stacked onto pallets.

MSD Heist Operations has reported that employees handle the plastic pallets with astounding ease. They place them on a marked spot on the floor and bring them to a comfortable working height using a scissor lift. Then they are loaded layer by layer with boxes before being taken by a lift truck to a central waiting area, where automated guided vehicles take them to the shipping area for exporting worldwide.

Hygiene benefits aside, polyolefin plastic pallets come with a competitive price tag

The next-generation plastic pallets referred to here are recycled polyolefin (PO) pallets – models Cabka-IPS CPP 878 PO and Cabka-IPS CPP 875 PO – which come with a very competitive price tag. Since many of MSD Heist Operation’s suppliers now use polyolefin pallets, more than 40% of the goods it receives can be sent to production as complete pallets. For example, typical aluminium ointment tubes that come labelled and packaged on these PO pallets can go directly from the receiving warehouse to the production area.

One-trip budget plastic pallets

In the past, the perceived cost of plastic pallets put customers off using them, but this example illustrates that a shift from wooden to plastic pallets doesn’t have to be a costly one. Although the initial outlay on many plastic pallets is often higher than on wooden varieties, the next-generation polyolefin pallets are bridging the gap, and so too are other one-trip plastic pallets made from budget materials.

Since one-trip budget plastic pallets can be used throughout the pharmaceutical supply chain – from suppliers delivering the packaging components to the production facility at the beginning of the chain, through production and the warehouse, to shipping the finished products at the end of the chain – they remove the cost and time implications of transferring product from wooden pallets to plastic ones.

For large pallet users a variety of one-trip nestable pallets manufactured from different budget materials are available; these are lightweight and exempt from ISPM15 heat treatment regulations4, making them a popular choice for exporting goods.

Call for clearer guidance

Pharmaceutical manufacturers take great care of packaging products to ensure product safety and avoid external influence. However, it appears that less importance is given to choosing the type of pallets the products are distributed on. The Guidelines on Good Distribution Practice of Medicinal Products for Human Use (94/C 63/03) provide only vague advice on the topic of delivering medicinal products to wholesalers. Under the heading ‘Deliveries to customer’, section 20 states: ‘Medicinal products should be transported in such a way that: they do not contaminate, and are not contaminated by, other products or materials.’5

When selecting which type of pallet to use, there are a number of factors that should be considered and prioritised: material; size; load capacity; strength; handling; application; and frequency of use. Offering drug manufacturers clearer guidance on the distribution of medicinal products, in particular on the selection and use of pallets, will enable them to make a more informed decision.

As has been demonstrated here, by switching from a combination of hygienic plastic pallets and wooden pallets to the use of polyolefin pallets or one-trip budget plastic pallets throughout the entire supply chain, pharmaceutical manufacturers can achieve huge cost savings and at the same time promote better hygiene. For this to happen, however, clearer industry guidance is needed on ‘Good Pallet Practice’ and manufacturers must be prepared to re-evaluate their current methods for handling and distributing goods.


1. FDA website, Johnson and Johnson’s Recall of Children’s Tylenol http://www.fda.

2., Buyers Guide, Hygienic pallets benefits

3. Merck

4. ISPM15 Regulations

5. The Guidelines on Good Distribution Practice of Medicinal Products for Human Use
(94/C 63/03)