Worker fatigue costs employers an estimated $136 billion in health-related lost productivity each year in the U.S. alone, according to the National Safety Council. What’s more, the NSC finds that fatigued worker productivity losses cost employers between $1,200 to $3,100 per employee each year. I’ve had conversations with warehouse operators who report similar findings. Employee fatigue is increasingly becoming a serious workplace issue. While not easily discernible in the accounting books, fatigue is impacting the bottom line for many distributors.
Although extended or unusual work shifts are not out of the ordinary in many warehouses, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration notes that “non-traditional shifts and extended work hours may disrupt the body’s regular schedule, leading to increased fatigue, stress and lack of concentration.” A few symptoms that warehouse managers should watch for as potential signs of worker fatigue include weariness, sleepiness, irritability, reduced alertness, lack of concentration and memory, giddiness and similar physical signs.
We’ve all heard stories of employees taking mental health days, or calling in sick in the name of an extra day of rest. This may be one way workers are addressing the issue of fatigue, but it points to a troubling trend — especially in the warehouse. An office worker may doze off at her desk because she’s not getting enough sleep at night and no one is seriously impacted. But a tired forklift operator can quickly trigger one of the estimated 35,000 serious injuries that OSHA reports each year involving forklifts.
At the same time, a tired warehouse worker is prone to taking shortcuts on the job. He may think to himself, “Why move the ladder to grab that box when I can simply climb the racking or push the box through to the other side with a long stick or pole?” Or another worker might forget to put on her high-vis safety vest, potentially resulting in one of those aforementioned forklift incidents.
While co-workers might make light of finding an employee asleep at their work station or in a seldom-picked zone of the warehouse, this could be a sign of worker fatigue. Moreover, warehouse managers should look for other signs, such as a worker making noticeable inventory mistakes during certain periods of the day or having inconsistent pick rates compared to other workers and their historical averages.
A quality warehouse management system can help identify these patterns for supervisors.
Technology in Action
As with nearly every facet of our daily lives, there are a number of solutions for technology to address this problem. There’s certainly a role for small steps like ergonomically designed computer keyboards and mice, barcode scanners, holsters for RF terminals or headsets for voice applications. Wearable devices (like Fitbits) hold great promise as well; however, tracking a warehouse worker’s every single movement can raise data privacy concerns, fears about workplace surveillance and, if not promoted right, can be just plain creepy.
Today, a well-designed and implemented WMS can play a meaningful role in combating warehouse worker fatigue. For starters, metrics derived from a WMS provide visibility into whether workers are taking scheduled breaks — and for how long — based on when the employee logged on/off from an RF terminal. By its design, a WMS used properly will reduce the number of steps and motions for the warehouse worker.
A WMS also enables efficient organization of the warehouse, stocking high-moving inventory in a “golden zone” closer to the shipping dock and within easiest reach of the picker. Manually analyzing and determining item placement is time-consuming and arduous, but with the help of slotting functionality a WMS automates the process by suggesting SKU locations based on the frequency with which a product gets touched. Along with improving picking efficiency and accuracy, you’re reducing unnecessary employee steps in the warehouse.
In addition, a single putaway and pick path for inventory handling ensures the stocking of inventory in the correct bin location for precise real-time inventory control. With the WMS efficiently directing worker movement throughout the warehouse, the employee doesn’t have to spend all day searching through jumbled inventory to find what they’re looking for — something this can be physically (and mentally) draining.
Lastly, let’s also not forget the traditional physical inventory approach of shutting down operations, counting inventory, auditing counts and then recounting inventory is often highly disruptive to warehouse operations, and can be a contributor to worker fatigue — especially if the physical inventory takes place over the weekend or after hours. With a WMS, the manager or warehouse worker can launch a cycle count job from a handheld scanner. The user then counts the items in a bin location, enters the quantities into the scanner and is notified of any discrepancies. Verifying item locations and quantities in real time and during normal business hours can ease the inventory process for workers and reduce workplace-induced fatigue.
Recommending the most efficient organization of the warehouse, directing worker movement, streamlining inventories by verifying item locations and quantities in real time are just a few of the ways that a WMS can help play a role in combating worker fatigue. With demand for warehouse workers growing faster than labor supply, employees are likely picking up extra shifts to meet customer demand. In a report last September, CBRE projected demand for creating another 452,000 warehouse and distribution center workers in the U.S. through the end of 2019.
In other words, fatigue is likely to become an even bigger issue in your warehouse.
Eric Allais, president and CEO of Bothell, Washington-based PathGuide Technologies, Inc., has more than 30 years of experience in marketing, product management and sector analysis in the automated data collection industry, including warehouse management practices in wholesale distribution. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.