New industry practices and technology have made modern warehouses safer and more productive than they’ve ever been in the past.
However, despite improving standards, working in a warehouse can still be a dangerous job. Falling objects, heavy machinery like forklifts and musculoskeletal injuries all remain major threats to worker health, safety and productivity.
With the right changes, it’s possible to make warehouses much safer — and, in many cases, boost productivity at the same time.
This is how any warehouse owner can develop a strategy to improve both the safety and productivity of a warehouse.
Safety-Improving layout changes
The layout of your warehouse can be one of the biggest contributing factors to employee safety and productivity.
With the right layout changes, you can make your warehouse much easier to navigate — reducing the risk that employees need to backtrack or take inefficient routes.
Wherever possible, cutting down on long pick paths can make workers more efficient and reduce potential safety risks. Modern warehouse optimization tools can help you identify potentially inefficient pick paths and build newer, more navigable layouts.
In every warehouse, good use of space and procedures that keep walkways clear of debris or packaging will help workers stay moving and prevent any potential slips or falls due to obstacles.
Taking advantage of all the space you have can help improve efficiency and may secure you some extra room for inventory. In some warehouses with high ceilings, for example, you may be able to install a mezzanine or another type of storage and handling equipment. The right setup can significantly increase warehouse storage and work space. A mezzanine can also be used by supervising or administrative staff if you need additional offices.
If you plan to make major layout changes, it’s also good practice to test the layout before fully committing. Some design issues that may not be apparent on a warehouse map can become obvious when put into practice.
Some layout changes can be made without significant adjustments to your warehouse. For example, new signs make it easier for workers to traverse the warehouse, but they don’t require a considerable investment.
If they’re not clearly marked already, you may also want to designate paths for pedestrians and forklifts. The separate walkways will help workers avoid collisions and keep traffic flowing smoothly throughout the warehouse.
Process improvements that can boost safety and Productivity
Changes to warehouse workflows and processes can also provide similar improvements to safety and worker efficiency.
Implementing a practice like cross-docking, for example, can provide significant improvements to floor efficiency. However, adopting this kind of approach may require some substantial changes to how you organize goods, as well as extra training for current and new employees.
Other, smaller process improvements can also yield benefits with less potential disruption.
Shifting experienced employees to receiving, for example, can help ensure items are stored properly and efficiently. This change can also give newer employees a chance to learn about warehouse workflows by filling orders.
Safety training will also likely be essential if you want to keep workers on the floor safe. Training will also help ensure that any new signage or designations you put into place — like floor markings for forklift lanes — will actually be followed by workers.
You may also select a handful of experienced workers who can train new hires one-on-one. These experienced workers are likely to have already had significant safety training and probably know how to lift and transport boxes or stay safe around warehouse forklifts and heavy equipment.
A formalized program like this can help pass on knowledge and ensure new workers don’t get left behind.
Soliciting employee feedback on warehouse productivity can also yield ideas for improving site workflows. Employees on the floor have a close relationship with their work. While they lack the bird’s-eye view of a supervisor, they are more likely to notice details or inefficiencies that may be hard to spot without spending time directly involved in stocking or filling orders.
New warehouse technology can make workers safer and more efficient
For warehouse owners willing to invest more heavily in safety and productivity, there’s a growing range of new technology that can help.
Autonomous guided vehicles (or AGVs), for example, are self-piloted robots that can handle basic warehouse tasks — like picking, packing and navigating the floor — without human input.
Amazon famously uses these robots in the company’s warehouses, where they help to streamline elements of site workflows and reduce the amount of walking that on-site employees need to do.
These AGVs have been around for decades, but recent advances in AI and machine vision technology have made them much more practical and better at functioning with minimal human input. On the floor, they can help improve the accuracy and speed of fulfilment, while sparing workers from repetitive tasks that can cause strain.
Less advanced robots and warehouse equipment can also help you improve productivity — and they also typically require less of an upfront investment.
Collaborative robots, sometimes called cobots, can fill a similar niche in the warehouse as AGVs. These robots are specially designed to work alongside workers on the floor, rather than take over their duties. They can help workers handle tasks that require repetitive motions, potentially helping to boost productivity and reduce the risk of injury.
Because they’re built to work in close proximity with human staff, they also come outfitted with features that can make them safer to work around compared to more conventional robots.
Make any warehouse safer and more productive with these changes
Warehouse workers face some significant challenges that can make them both less safe and less productive. With the right changes to warehouse layout, processes and technology, you can improve safety and make it easier for staff to work efficiently.
Safety training, efficient layout design and new collaborative robotics are all some of the best ways to optimize warehouse workflows while also reducing potential risks to worker health.
Article by —
Megan Ray Nichols
Freelance Science Writer