Labor challenges vs automation
Warehouse fatalities in the US jumped from 11 to 22 annually in a span of just two years (2015-2017), according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. The most recently released injury rate is 5.1 per 100 full-time warehouse workers, which is the same injury rate as farming (EHS Today 2019).
Hazards from employee interactions with motorized equipment are increasing, as automation replaces manual labor wherever efficiency gains are possible. Therefore, warehouse workers everywhere will be at a higher risk for injury as companies struggle to implement safety protocols that match the pace of modernization.
Workplace safety challenges in detail
Budgeting and associated time constraints: Setting KPIs and establishing processes and documentation for hazards is time consuming and requires expertise as well as labor. Companies need to allocate money and resources to development of these processes and standards which can be a drain on the business without the appropriate automation.
Actually training workers: Fast-paced fulfillment requirements and the growing demand of e-commerce fulfillment times can strain an operation to maximum effort and force workers and managers to feel like there is no time for safety training. Regular safety meetings need to be fitted into the schedule along with continuing education and operator certification training to ensure regulatory compliance.
Ergonomics and Health: Fast-paced packing, labeling, sorting, twisting, and standing: continuous and repetitive motion is a well-known cause of physical distress. Environmental stressors, such as high heat and noise levels or extremely cold interior temperatures add to physical stress.
What can technology help?
Voice or vision picking:Rather than using barcode scanners, RFID devices or paper for picking, voice technology helps team members to confirm a pick and remove the item from the inventory using a microphone on their headset. This completely frees their hands so they can follow appropriate safe lifting and handling techniques. Since there is no need to look at a screen, staff can keep their eyes up to avoid hazards like forklifts and other machinery.
Voice-directed inspections: Whether they’re maintaining trucks, aircraft, buildings or IT equipment, organizations performing checklist-based inspections face a range of challenges. From a safety perspective, inspections must comply with relevant regulations. Additionally, inspectors need their hands free to complete tasks – for instance, checking a truck’s engine – so manually logging results on paper or mobile devices is unergonomic and inefficient. Organizations must enable inspectors to work in a way that’s safe, seamless and more productive.
- Virtual training:Today’s modern training technologies are ideal for educating staff, both new and existing, providing the means for them to take part in training “inside the warehouse,” without the risks of the real warehouse environment; and reinforcing those lessons with testing and continuing education.
- AMR & Robotics:By relieving people of some of more ergonomically challenging tasks, robots are key to increasing warehouse safety. For example, they can lift and move heavy items over long distances, leaving workers to pick smaller items from the shelves. By carrying out more monotonous tasks, they can also cut down on repetitive injuries, such as muscle strain, and accidents associated with worker fatigue.
- Warehouse management systems: Many operations will look to their WMS to help monitor, analyze, and make changes to labor planning. They can also call attention to repetitive issues in inefficiency and safety. By providing insight into labor analytics, with a Labor Management System add-on or various other productivity tools, companies can look at how best to optimize their picking, packing, put away, and replenishment tasks to eliminate repetitive motion injuries or worker accidents.
- Warehouse simulation software: Warehouse simulation software allows operations to create a digital twin of their operation and test the impact of changes on their warehouse. This can be helpful in determining how best to streamline processes and direct movement throughout the warehouse making a more efficient and safer work environment.
- Automation: Automation allows warehouses to do more with technology that can replace workers and enhance the productivity of their workers. Automated physically demanding improves the safety protocols put in place at the warehouse level.
In a nutshell
Safety strategies and technologies can have a positive impact on productivity, worker satisfaction and reduce overhead costs. However, while the rapid pace of technology can help improve warehouse efficiency, it needs to be handled in a manner where workers can keep up and maintain their health. New warehouses pose new challenges. That means a new center or operation requires increased safety and regulatory requirements to keep up with. But lastly, employing safer new technology in the warehouse and training them, means they are more likely to stay which solves labor challenges.