How technology can help improve worker safety across the warehousing industry

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By James Mann,  Enterprise Business Development Manager, Getac.

Warehouses are often filled with noise, dust and distractions, making them dangerous places to work. Air quality can also be extremely variable, with heat and fumes regularly creating additional hazards for workers. Consequently, keeping warehouse employees safe and well takes a strong mix of culture, compliance, and the right technology to underpin safety initiatives.

According to the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive, there were no less than 11 fatal injuries last year across the transportation and storage industry, while an estimated 28,000 workers suffered a non-fatal injury, costing £322 million in lost productivity. In warehousing specifically, around 3,000 workers are injured annually, equating to almost three percent of the total workforce in the country.

These figures demonstrate the crucial importance of improving worker safety. While modern systems and approaches have resulted in slightly lower injury rates over time, the overall volume is still far too high and a drastic reduction is required before warehousing is considered a safe industry to work in. Technology can play a critical role in achieving this, but it’s important to choose the right hardware and systems to maximise outcomes. 

Fortunately, there’s a growing number of products and solutions that organisations can implement in order to bolster safety. Below are five great examples:

1. Better communication tools

High-speed communication and real-time insights, delivered directly to employees via rugged mobile devices, can keep them updated on key variables around them such as air quality, temperature, and other potential hazards in the vicinity. Armed with this knowledge, they can react faster and/or take the necessary steps needed to prevent accidents before they occur. 

2. More accurate hazard identification/prevention

On-site physical safety management through apps and specialist software can help organisations ensure they’re identifying and rectifying hazards as they arise. Workers can take pictures of hazards and complete mobile safety checklists to ensure everyone is protected, while IT devices attached to forklifts can be fitted with screen blanking software that prevents drivers becoming distracted when the vehicle is in motion.

3. Integration of virtual and augmented reality technology

Virtual reality and augmented reality can help with training employees on how to cope with dangerous situations without actually putting them in danger. Augmented reality can let technicians or experienced workers coach others through processes such as machine repair without having to increase the number of people physically in the environment. This can be useful if the repairs are dangerous, conditions are hazardous, or in the case of social distancing requirements. 

4. Greater use of drones

Drones can be used when sites are too dangerous for people to investigate, such as if there is a gas leak or other chemical spill. Drones can capture information and let clean-up teams determine the safest course of action without having to be exposed to the danger. 

5. Adoption of automation and robotics

Automation improves safety by removing the burden of heavy, manual work from people. Robots can do the heavy lifting, leaving people free to focus on more creative tasks. This is particularly useful in understaffed warehouses where the pressure to maintain productivity can create a culture where some risk is accepted in exchange for getting work done more quickly. Adding robots to the workforce can alleviate the pressure and reduce the risk. 

Robots can also help in production facilities where people no longer need to walk from place to place to pick up the materials they need for their portion of the assembly. Instead, robots can bring them the parts they need, when they need them, reducing the distance walked by people and thus reducing fatigue and the risk of accidents. 

To fully leverage these technologies, warehousing organisations need to deploy rugged solutions that are built to handle the harsh environment of a warehouse. Simply choosing a consumer-like tablet or notebook to interface with technology can create more problems than it solves in the long run. Instead, organisations should choose purpose-built devices that can withstand drops, shocks, vibration, noise, dust, and temperature extremes. 

For example, when completing safety checklists and inductions, using a rugged device with a highly readable screen can help make the process easier. Lighting conditions can vary in warehouses, so a screen that’s designed to be readable in harsh glare or dim light is essential, and it’s also important to have a responsive touch screen that can be used with gloves, wet hands, or a stylus. 

Devices should also include a camera to capture images of hazards and repairs, making verbal or written descriptions unnecessary and improving the accuracy of reporting. This makes it easier to digitalise operations and keep track of issues that need to be rectified. 

With augmented and virtual reality applications becoming more commonplace, it’s also important to future proof IT investments by choosing devices with the processing power and connectivity required to run these applications reliably. Consumer-grade devices don’t necessarily meet the standard, and their inability to withstand the warehouse environment makes them a poor choice in this scenario. 

The warehousing industry is currently still a dangerous place to work, but technology is playing a bigger and bigger role in rectifying this. As the number of specialist apps and solutions continues to grow, organisations have never had more tools at their disposal to protect employees and keep them safe. However, in order to fully capitalise, they must first ensure that the IT devices they invest in can also handle the highly physical, often chaotic environments found in modern warehouses.

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