Worker safety is an increasingly serious challenge for warehouse leaders. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report, transportation and warehousing injuries and illness increased from 206,900 cases in 2020 to 253,100 cases in 2021 – a nearly 23% increase.
Several factors contribute to this concerning trend. Warehouses have experienced higher demand due to the growth of e-commerce and online shopping. This puts pressure on workers to meet production targets, potentially leading to safety shortcuts. Lack of training, long hours, fatigue, and the physical nature of warehouse work are all well-documented causes of musculoskeletal injuries over time.
Industries must also confront a tightening labor market and high workforce turnover. According to a recent study by Korn Ferry, the worldwide workforce is on track to encounter a significant deficit of 85 million employees by 2030. The increase in unfilled roles is primarily expected due to aging populations, shifting demographics, and skill disparities. The issue is particularly acute within the warehousing sector, where the demand for an additional 3.5 million workers is projected by 2025. A staggering 73% of warehouse operators reported struggling to secure an adequate workforce in 2022. Fewer people on the warehouse floor puts more strain on workers, increasing the risk of accidents and injuries.
The impact of human-machine cooperation
With workforce issues expected to persist, organizations will have to meet increasing demands by improving efficiency. As warehouses strive to become more efficient, however, it’s critical to recognize productivity should not compromise worker safety. Collaborative automation, or CollaboMation, combines human and machine strengths for balanced productivity and safety.
Humans handle cognitive, creative tasks, while automation reduces repetitive, physically demanding activities. Together, they optimize individual strengths to create future warehouses.
With CollaboMation, technology guides workers through their day while collecting data to improve workflows. This data-driven approach enhances safety standards.
A holistic combination of training, culture, and intelligently designed solutions is key. The future depends on harmonious human-machine collaboration leveraging respective strengths, not replacing human roles. Worker health, safety, and satisfaction must remain top priorities amidst automation.
Here are five ways CollaboMation can help improve safety and well-being while simultaneously improving productivity:
- Reducing Repetitive and Hazardous Tasks
One of the primary benefits of CollaboMation in warehouses is its ability to reduce or eliminate repetitive and hazardous tasks that put human workers at risk. By offloading high-risk tasks to robots, such as heavy lifting, handling toxic substances, or working in extreme temperatures, human workers can avoid unnecessary physical strain and exposure to dangerous conditions.
Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) can handle diverse payloads from 300 kg to an impressive 1200 kg. As a result, they succeed in tasks such as collaborative picking and seamless transportation. This technology alone enhances the capabilities of both humans and robots to create a cohesive workflow that leverages the strengths of both while creating more time for the human worker.
- Enhanced Monitoring and Real-Time Alerts
Organizations can collect valuable data via workers and robots on the shop floor. From there, they can analyze it to identify potential safety hazards and problem areas, preventing accidents. This data can then be fed back to workers, alerting them to adjust their behavior to avoid injury. Data points on cycle times, walking times, and individual workloads will shine a greater light on warehouse processes, supporting in identifying the factors contributing to injuries. From there, warehouses can make the necessary adjustments, from redistributing workloads for overexerted workers to mapping out better travel routes. By leveraging data-driven insights, organizations can proactively take action to mitigate risk and create a safer work environment from the bottom up.
- Improved Ergonomics and Workspace Design
Human-robot collaboration in warehouses also extends to the design of the workspace. With robots handling tasks better suited for automation, warehouse managers can reconfigure the layout to optimize ergonomics and safety for human workers. This can lead to better use of available space, reduced clutter, and more ergonomic workstations.
Moreover, robots can assist in rearranging storage racks and items or placing heavy or frequently accessed items at accessible heights. Small actions like this minimize the risk of workers straining themselves to reach high shelves or moving heavy objects.
- Training and Skill Development
Integrating autonomous technology in warehouses opens new opportunities for workers to develop valuable skills. Human workers can train to operate and maintain these robotic systems, creating an upskilled, more specialized workforce. This not only safeguards job security but also empowers workers with skills that are increasingly relevant in the modern job market.
Additionally, in a similar vein to automation limiting human error, workers can serve as quality control experts for automation tools. These checks and balances ensure that technologies perform their tasks accurately and safely. This collaborative relationship between humans and robots not only improves quality but fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility among workers, contributing to a culture of safety and efficiency.
- Increased Productivity and Efficiency
A strong partnership between humans and robots in warehouses not only enhances safety but also drives productivity and efficiency. By automating repetitive and time-consuming tasks, robots allow human workers to focus on more complex and value-adding activities. This can result in faster order processing, reduced error rates, and improved overall warehouse performance.
Additionally, autonomous systems can optimize the allocation of resources, such as inventory management and route planning for order fulfillment. This improves efficiency and minimizes the risk of accidents caused by overcrowded storage areas or inefficient material handling.
In the modern warehouse, CollaboMation between human workers and autonomous technology can be fundamental in promoting worker safety. By offloading exhausting tasks, enhancing monitoring capabilities, and improving ergonomics, organizations can significantly reduce the risk of accidents and injuries. Moreover, this collaboration fosters skill development, empowers workers, and ultimately leads to a safer and more efficient warehouse environment.
Rather than viewing automation as a threat to human jobs, warehouse owners should embrace it as a tool to enhance worker safety and productivity. As technology continues to advance, the future of warehousing lies in the harmonious coexistence of humans and robots, working together to create a safer, more efficient, and more sustainable industry.
About the Author:
Axel Schmidt is the principal communications manager for ProGlove, developer of industrial wearables that enable manufacturing and logistics staff to work faster, safer, and easier.