When it comes to protecting employees during the COVID-19 pandemic, industrial companies have a more difficult job than most. Since many industrial jobs must be performed on-site, it is challenging to enforce the social distancing protocols cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition, workers frequently share tools and equipment, increasing the potential for cross-contamination.
In large industrial environments such as distribution centers, warehouses or manufacturing facilities, large spaces between workers lead to inefficiency and reduced productivity levels. Traditionally, workflows are designed to reduce the amount of time and distance an employee wastes moving from one location to another. And that often means employees are spaced closer than desired during the pandemic. Fortunately, industry leaders are taking some simple steps to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.
1. Wearable Devices
Barcodes scanners are found throughout warehouses and distribution centers – and are often shared by multiple workers. New wearable devices are emerging as essential additions for increasing productivity in industrial settings. At first glimpse, it may seem that putting scanning devices on employees’ wrists would cause greater disease cross-contamination. But quite the opposite is true. Ergonomically designed wearable devices ensure the mount is the only thing that touches workers’ skin.
That’s why many industrial companies are buying hands-free, personal wearable devices (like Bluetooth ring scanners) to replace shared devices such as handheld barcode scanners. They are also investing in light, wrist-mounted, Android-based mobile computers and voice-enabled software to support no-touch access to picking instructions or other critical data. Not only do these wearable devices protect against the spread of disease, but they also leave a worker’s hands free for picking, packing and sorting items. Because the devices are detachable, managers can cost-effectively assign each worker their own personal mount.
2. Making Sanitizing Easy
Not all disinfection processes are the same – and the more difficult the disinfection process is, the less likely employees will follow the guidelines.
Wearable mounts should be cleaned daily, and even though mounted electronic devices do not touch skin, many companies prefer to disinfect them when they are used across shifts. That’s why it is vital to choose rugged wearable mounts and electronic devices that can withstand frequent cleaning and disinfecting with solutions such as isopropyl alcohol or soap and water.
Rugged devices and wearable mounts are also designed to endure daily contact with salt, lotions and other potentially corrosive substances often found on the skin – and accidental drops on to a hard warehouse floor.
3. Rethink Training and Meeting Practices
Instead of bringing everyone into a training room where workers are in close proximity for hours at a time, many firms are turning to video training delivered to users’ mobile devices. Video conferences can also replace the daily “team huddle,” and effectively eliminate in-person contact between employees.
Many manufacturing and warehouse facilities are already implementing collaborative robots, otherwise known as cobots, to reduce cross-contamination risk. Not surprisingly, the demand for cobots is expected to increase by double-digits through 2027, according to the research firm Interact Analysis.
Cobots can be particularly useful in collecting picked materials from a human and transferring them to the shipping area. Associates can even use their wearable devices to request that a robot collect picked materials as they finish an order. Cobots make it easy to use zone-based picking, keeping pickers in a particular zone and minimizing close contact with other workers. Cobots can also collect and transport finished picked product to packing and shipping.
Their effectiveness can also be increased when combined with wearable technology to minimize the “dwell time” at the pick slot and ensure process accuracy.
5. Using Tech to Help Safe Practices
Rugged devices can leverage Bluetooth technology and innovative applications to monitor user location and issue a proximity alert when those carrying the devices get too close to each other. The devices also flag situations where employees are in dangerously close contact for more extended periods, such as five minutes. Software apps can create a digital record of these extended “close contact” events to support contract tracing if an employee tests positive for COVID-19.
Proximity tracing solutions help reduce the need for widespread facility closures because management can quickly pinpoint who was exposed and where those interactions occurred. Those not exposed to COVID-19 do not require testing or quarantining.
Companies are also using the data collected on “close contact” events to explore potential workflow issues that might cause COVID-19 to spread more easily. For example, suppose a warehouse manager finds that employees are congregating in areas where high-order items are grouped together. In this case, the manager may consider splitting the items across multiple zones to reduce human congestion. This operational visibility may reveal the value of zone-based picking, keeping the same pickers in one area and transfer materials via conveyors, carts, or cobots to reduce cross-exposure between workers.
During the pandemic, warehouse leaders are continuing to explore innovative options to better protect workers, particularly those that must be on-site to do their jobs effectively. That’s why many industrial companies are deploying new technologies and solutions to help keep their employees safe and productive..
Mark Wheeler is the Director of Supply Chain Solutions for Zebra Technologies. More information about the technology he discussed is available by clicking here.