The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly accelerated consumer uptake of online shopping. Today, a record of 36.1% of all retail sales are taking place online, a 77.6% increase compared with February, 2020.
Despite this increased demand, productivity in the warehousing and storage sectors declined by 7.6% in 2021. For the most part, this drop in productivity can be attributed to three broad areas.
Placement. The efficiency of warehousing operations is largely dependent on floor space and layout. Research shows that 65% of warehouse operators identify both of these elements as a challenge. The placement of stock items can have a significant impact on the efficiency of individual pickers and packers in the warehouse.
Processes. The ways in which warehouse workers go about picking and packing items can have a significant influence on efficiency and output. Fifty percent of a picker’s time is spent just on movement. By optimizing movements, warehouses can go a long way toward improving the overall efficiency of operations.
People. With all the recent supply chain disruptions, people are more important than ever before in warehousing. Yet logistics companies struggle to find, train and retain qualified warehouse workers. Even when they do manage to find the right people, lost work days and presenteeism are rampant. Accidents in warehouses account for 95 million lost workdays every year. Researchers also estimate that in the last 12 months, approximately 40% of workers presented to work despite feeling pain or being otherwise unwell. A problem that’s not always obvious, presenteeism flies under the radar, cutting productivity by one-third or more and costing the U.S. economy more than $150 billion every year.
A simple yet often overlooked strategy for increasing productivity and maximizing output is targeting a reduction in workplace pain and injuries.
Frequent pain has been directly linked to decreased work performance. Workers with back pain lose an average of 5.2 hours of productive working time per week. Most of this lost time is due to reduced performance at work, not work absence.
Another study shows that unhappy workers are 10% less productive. They identify the work environment as a key motivator for happiness (including ergonomic workspaces, where employees can do their jobs without aches and pains).
Researchers also found that optimizing tasks to minimize the physical impact on workers results in an average 67% reduction in workplace errors.
Warehouses can further boost productivity by improving workers’ individual movement sense (or proprioception), and teaching them to move safely. Proprioception can be described as knowing the position of the body in space. It’s the ability to sense where any part of the body is positioned at any particular time, without looking in a mirror or observing.
Skilled proprioception doesn’t come naturally; it requires practice and training. Think of dancers and elite athletes and their ability to perform with precision; their proprioceptive sense has been exercised and developed and the feedback loops to the brain are aligned. They’re aware of how they’re moving and where their limbs, spine and other areas of the body are in space at any point in time, reducing the chance of disablement.
Safe movement habits have been proven time and again to increase efficiency. Increased efficiency means increased productivity. When workers feel stronger and have more energy because they are working in an environment that caters to their needs and capabilities, they accomplish tasks more efficiently.
Advances in ergonomic training using sensors and biofeedback are providing an opportunity for the supply chain to engage the power of artificial intelligence to expand the proprioceptive awareness of workers through flexible training that track hazardous movements on the go.
AI-wearable technology and training programs that target the reduction of pain, injuries and absenteeism are charting the course for the future. The solution consists of small, lightweight wearable devices designed to monitor the behavior of workers, and flag hazardous movements that could lead to back or shoulder injuries. These alerts improve awareness and reduce the overall risk of injury. The technology allows users to track progress, complete training modules, analyze data and produce visually appealing reports through mobile apps and centralized dashboards.
Benefits of the analysis generated by wearable sensors are extensive. Data can be used to gain an understanding of issues that impact the efficiency of tasks. Warehouses can identify which tasks are causing workers more pain and leading to a drop in productivity. Such insights provide an opportunity to modify tasks and work stations to reduce unnecessary or hazardous movements, lessen the risk of injury and increase efficiency.
Anina-Marie Warrener is content manager for Soter Analytics.
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