Rebuilding after Covid: How warehouses are ensuring worker safety

Mark Wheeler, Director of Supply Chain Solutions, Zebra Technologies, details how workers can remain safe and efficient post-pandemic
Warehouse, Zebra


Labour costs typically represent more than half the cost of a warehouse’s operations. So, it is no surprise that more than 60% of warehouse companies say that recruiting skilled workers and maximizing worker efficiency is a top challenge.

Keeping operations efficient is even more challenging today, given the new regulations put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. To comply with these regulations, many warehouses and manufacturing companies are staggering shifts, frequently cleaning work areas both during and between shifts, requiring workers to stay six feet away from each other, doing daily temperature checks and handing out masks – all of which take time and can lower productivity.

In today’s world, maximizing warehouse efficiency is no longer a luxury – it is a necessity. That is why companies across the globe are streamlining warehouse processes by leveraging wearable technology, automation and analytics.

Wearable technology - including head-worn displays and arm- or hip-mounted mobile computers that offer voice and scanning capabilities - help workers do their jobs faster and more accurately while automation involves using robots/cobots for basic tasks, freeing up humans for other more important tasks. Analytics help companies improve efficiency in a variety of operational areas.

Companies are increasingly adopting these tools to optimize their warehouse operations and keep employees safe. Innovative companies are lowering labor costs and improving safety in several key areas:

Boosting picking efficiency. Employees can increase picking by combining location technology with wearables such as smart glasses and hands-free scanners.  By viewing easy-to-follow visual instructions directly at eye level, employees can fulfill orders more efficiently, replenish returned items and reach picking locations quickly. The wearable technology can also notify employees when they have placed an item in the wrong location, so that they can quickly fix the error.

Supporting social distancing between workers. Incorporating robots into the fulfillment process can improve efficiencies even further while cutting down on human-to-human interaction. In fact, many warehouses are already using mobile robots – instead of human workers - to transport picked materials. This reduces the amount of human interaction required for fulfillment and increases worker productivity. When robots perform material handling tasks instead of associates, pickers can recognize significant time savings from reduced warehouse travel time.

Eliminating repetitive tasks. Technology is also helping warehousing companies lessen the burden of repetitive tasks on their workforce, leaving human workers more time to focus on higher-skilled tasks. By 2024, 27% of decision makers indicate they plan to fully automate many tasks. Deploying warehouse automation technologies can help companies reduce operational costs up to 65%, according to research firm LogisticsIQ.

Streamlining reverse logistics operations. As e-commerce continues to grow, so do the number of returns that retailers and warehouses must process. Fortunately, technology such as mobile computers and scanners can help streamline the returns process, allowing workers to automatically input data from returned packages, adjust inventory counts and refund customers.

Shortening the training process. Research shows it can take an average of 4.5 weeks for new staff to reach full productivity. Fortunately, technology can reduce the learning curve. In the field, training employees to sort, pick and process returns using tools such as smart glasses and scanners can reduce training times up to 90% - and limit the amount of close human interaction required.

Improving workflow through analytics. With the emergence of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), companies are using sensors to improve operations such as machine maintenance, inventory management and workflow. By 2025, manufacturing companies are expected to spend an estimated $2.3 trillion collecting and analyzing the data that will help them improve operations in the warehouse and across the supply chain. Artificial Intelligence and machine learning will build on the visibility provided by the IIoT to create systems that are constantly adapting to the reality on the ground.

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