More than ever, companies in material handling and supply chain are prioritizing improvements in worker safety and the overall worker experience. Investing in an arsenal of cutting-edge technology is a major strategy they are employing to keep workers safe, reduce the physical and mental toll of their jobs, transform training and empower workers by giving them a stronger voice at work.
When Americold decided to enhance safety at its cold storage distribution center in central California in 2020, it partnered with Voxel Labs, Inc., a startup that uses artificial intelligence-powered video analytics to turn existing security cameras into a real-time hazard alert and notification system.
The results were astounding. Injuries plummeted 77% and lost-time days shrank from 288 to zero. The facility went from dead last in the company to top 10 in safety. Slashing injury-related costs freed up cash for pallet jacks, forklifts, racking systems and other upgrades that had been promised for decades.
Brian Benson, the general manager who was brought in to oversee safety improvements at the Americold DC and worked with Voxel to implement the cutting-edge technology, was impressed. So much, in fact, that he joined the company in 2022 as director of operations.
Like Americold, companies throughout the supply chain are focused on safety and the overall worker experience as never before, and are investing in technologies that are slashing worker injury rates, reducing physical and mental stress, empowering workers and creating a new, more efficient and more effective training paradigm.
- Workplace injuries are rising as the e-commerce boom has ratcheted up productivity demands, making warehouses and distribution centers even more dangerous places to work.
- Companies recognize that productivity and safety go hand-in-hand, and investments in safety are rapidly recouped by reductions in injury-related costs and increased efficiency on the floor.
- Technology that improves safety and makes workers’ lives easier is now seen as a competitive advantage for employers fighting to attract and retain associates in a tight labor market.
- The silver tsunami of retiring workers and the rapid pace of technological change has created the need for new training approaches that are more effective, especially with younger workers.
- Environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives are putting pressure on employers to do more to protect associates’ health and well-being—and document steps they’re taking to do so.
The Safety Imperative
The explosion of e-commerce and the demand for fast and accurate order fulfillment have driven increased adoption of automation such as robots and automated guided vehicles (AGVs) over the past several years. Yet, while such solutions can help reduce risk, the health and safety of workers in warehouses and distribution centers continues to be imperiled every day.
Forklifts alone are involved in an estimated 95,000 accidents annually, resulting in an estimated 100 fatalities and causing nearly 7,300 nonfatal injuries that resulted in days away from work, according to OSHA statistics. Forklift-related fatalities are up nearly 30% over the past decade.
Including non-forklift-related incidents, fatalities among workers in transportation and material moving occupations jumped 18.8% from 2020 to 2021, reaching 1,523 fatal work injuries, nearly one-third of the nation’s total of 5,190 workplace fatalities and the highest among all occupational groups.
Beyond the human toll, high workplace injury rates exact a high cost on employers in the form of lost productivity, higher overtime wages, workers’ compensation claims and the expense of hiring and training new workers. With supply chain companies facing a shortage of skilled workers, a poor safety record puts employers at a significant disadvantage in attracting and retaining workers.
A 2022 survey of on-floor workers by MHI member Lucas Systems found that 74% of workers were willing to sacrifice pay to work for companies that provide technology that makes their jobs safer and easier to do while also helping them meet performance goals and be more accurate. And 90% of employers said investing in technology would benefit recruiting and retention.
Fortunately, new solutions are emerging at an accelerating pace, providing employers with a dizzying array of safety-enhancing technologies including wearables, smart robots, sensors, computer vision, speech recognition and virtual reality (VR). Many are leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to enhance predictive analytics and provide real-time hazard response capabilities.
By 2026, according to a Gartner study, three-quarters of large enterprises will be using some form of smart robots in their warehouse operations to handle dangerous or physically demanding tasks and potentially reduce accident-causing human error and fatigue. And more supply chain companies are proactively planning and budgeting for safety solutions, said Aidan Madigan-Curtis, a partner at venture capital firm Eclipse, an investor in Voxel.
“There’s just no shortage of injuries and fatalities, and those numbers should be going down, but they’re going up,” Madigan-Curtis said. “It is absolutely in the crosshairs for all of these companies to ensure that they’ve got a safe, healthy and motivated workforce in their jobs every day, so any technology that can offer the ability for companies to do that better, people are always open to having a conversation.”
The 10,000-Pound Gorilla
Given their central role in all warehouses and DCs and the fact that a standard-capacity lift truck can weigh in at close to 10,000 pounds, it’s not surprising that monitoring and managing forklift operations is a major focus of new safety technologies—especially considering one in 10 forklifts will be involved in an accident every year.
MHI member Litum’s Real Time Location System (RTLS), for example, integrates ultra-wideband active RFID technology into battery-powered active RFID tags worn by workers on foot and installed on forklifts and other moving vehicles. The technology provides real-time hazard response capabilities as well as data analytics that offer actionable insights into patterns and trends.
The system, which can detect collisions before they happen and also includes accelerometers embedded in workers’ tags to detect falls and panic buttons to call for aid, helped a Fortune 10 retailer eliminate forklift accidents in 2021 at multiple warehouses within a year of implementing the solution. The early success led to a four-year initiative to add the technology to 40,000 forklifts at 700 sites worldwide.
Litum CEO Ozgur Ulku agrees that safety, while always important, has in many C-suites become as urgent a priority as efficiency—in part because the pandemic reminded everybody how closely safety and productivity are intertwined. That realization has customers putting safety first and beating a path to Litum’s door.
“Safety issues result in a lack of efficiency,” Ulku said. “Companies are now realizing that and that’s why they’re also investing in safety to become more and more efficient. We’re talking to a lot of our customers for 2024 projects, and they are really safety-oriented—whatever they design, safety comes first.”
The solution implemented by Americold uses Voxel’s computer vision AI to turn images captured by security cameras into video intelligence that uses a color-coded (red-orange-green) scoring system to flag incidents of unsafe behavior—for example, a forklift speeding or failing to stop at an intersection, near misses, or a worker lifting too much over his head. Over time, machine learning algorithms enable the system to identify patterns in the data that can help managers make changes to improve safety.
The two-and-a-half-year-old company has its system in “a significant number of the Fortune 500” and is seeing injury rate reductions of 60-80%, according to Voxel CEO and founder Alex Senemar, who has learned that successful implementation is as much about the human factor as the technology itself.
“There’s a lot of technical complexity in building a scalable solution that’s able to identify this type of activity, but getting the data you can act on is just half the battle,” Senemar said. “The other part of it is how do you bring it to the team, how do you build a positive culture around it, how do you make it a system where people won’t feel there’s a ‘Big Brother’ kind of aspect to this?”