Written by guest contributor Megan Ray Nichols, a freelance stem writer and the editor of Schooled By Science. For more from Megan, you can follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her blog here.
Warehouse managers more than keep busy with their diverse responsibilities. In an ideal world, safety would look after itself — and so would employees. We don’t live in that world, though, which is why warehouse managers must always be on the lookout for new safety tips, techniques and technologies.
Warehouse managers should take the following steps as they make 2020 the year of reduced incidents, higher productivity and happier and more committed employees.
1. Explore High-Tech Training Solutions
Anyone who’s taken Driver’s Ed. knows there’s a vast difference between studying the theory of a thing and practicing it. Learning the ropes in a warehouse is no different.
Employers and trainees in this field have a lot to gain from augmented reality and virtual reality (AR and VR). Both technologies are on their way to becoming the new normal in warehouse and logistics training. FedEx already uses VR to supplement classroom training for recruits.
The benefits are twofold. Employees get to experience a much more realistic and immersive environment, which immediately lifts safety training out of the realm of the hypothetical. Additionally, employers invest less time and effort into onboarding new hires, only for them to become overwhelmed right away by the demands of their new environment. AR and VR make for fewer surprises for everybody.
2. Develop a Skills Transfer Process
Having an employee retire without a successor in place is one major way in which safety becomes compromised in a warehouse. Most estimates say employees born between 1946 and 1964 are retiring at an average rate of 10,000 per day.
This skills gap can quickly become a safety gap, too — and solving it means developing a skills transfer process. Seasoned employees might not be born instructors, but they do have a rich knowledge base you’ll want to retain once they’ve gone.
Employers must work with these individuals to develop standardized safety practices and operational checklists that draw on their accumulated experience. Then, create ongoing mentorship and apprenticeship opportunities that make training more than a day-one experience.
3. Use Wearables and Geofencing
Over just a few years, wearable devices became a “tentpole” technology that consumers diligently watch for at each tech convention. Wearables have significant implications for personal health and institutional safety.
Much of the interest in workplace wearables centers on data collection for things like employee lifting techniques, distance traveled and the response to different lighting and temperature variables in the work environment. Each of these plays a role in injury rates and workers’ compensation claims in warehouses. Managers will soon be able to use this health wearable data to intervene in cases of poor technique and unsafe practices.
Wearables might be a couple of years away from “going mainstream” in warehouses, but geofencing is not. Geofencing involves using RFID tags and other identifiers to judge the distance between two things.
In a warehouse setting, personal space and safe equipment operating radii are vital. Vehicles, heavy equipment and employee badges can all be equipped with RFID tags. Employers can use geofencing to automatically trigger an equipment shutdown or vehicle braking if an employee wanders into its path or operational radius.
4. Consider Travel Surfaces and Make Safety Markings Consistent
It’s not uncommon for warehouses to let existing traffic lanes and safety markings remain on the floor even after workflows and layouts change. Employees must receive training on being aware of their surroundings, but your workforce also relies on visual markers as they traverse the environment.
OSHA recommendations recognize two variables above the others when it comes to layout and safety markings — consistency and accuracy. For instance, every pedestrian travel area should bear markings of the same color throughout the facility. And these markings should match current workflows. The same is true for vehicle travel lanes and hazardous areas.
Another thing that’s easy to overlook, apart from consistency, is calling attention to slip-and-fall hazards. These are some of the most common sources of injury in warehouses, so take care to call out slick surfaces and areas of variable height — like where trucks meet loading docks — in bright, bold colors.
5. Watch for Exhaustion and Balance Productivity and Safety
Everybody loves watching for the mail carrier to deliver those comforting boxes with big smiles on the side. Unfortunately, while Amazon is a trailblazer in many areas, it exemplifies what it means to prioritize productivity over safety. Single Amazon fulfillment centers sometimes post serious injury rates as high as four times the industry average.
Safety is every associate’s responsibility in the day-to-day, but a safety-conscious culture must begin at the top. And that culture must find a satisfactory balance between protection and productivity. Help workers achieve that balance by training those whose takt times don’t measure up, rather than disciplining them and potentially inspiring less-safe practices in the future. And if many employees fall short of expectations, revisit those goals for safety’s sake.
Another way to make sure employees work as safely as possible is by allowing them adequate breaks. OSHA has no standardized expectations when it comes to working breaks, but some states do. Consider PA’s required 30-minute break for every five hours worked the bare minimum. And if an employee looks exhausted or unwell, show some interest and see they get the recuperation they require.
Rethinking Warehouse Safety
Balancing productivity and safety sounds like a difficult job — it’s most of the job for warehouse managers. By applying the right technology, encouraging information and expertise sharing and giving workers time to recover, we can make our warehouses much safer and more attractive places to work.