June 15, 2017

DCs weigh workplace safety after shooting at UPS package center

Tighter warehouse security can deter theft, but preventing violence requires social awareness, experts say.

By Ben Ames

In the wake of yesterday's deadly shooting at a San Francisco facility operated by UPS Inc., logistics firms are re-examining how to strike a balance between tighter security measures in DCs and the impact of those steps on costs and operating efficiencies, industry experts said today.

Employees at the site were back at work Thursday, after a disgruntled UPS driver killed three colleagues and wounded two more during the morning shift change before turning the gun on himself. The UPS package center is located in an industrial neighborhood about two miles from downtown San Francisco.

Atlanta-based UPS said it uses layers of physical and technological security at all of its facilities. The company declined to say whether it would consider any changes in the wake of the incident. "We are working to help our employees and the families of those impacted heal from this senseless tragedy, while also investigating the circumstances that led up to this event," UPS Chairman and CEO David Abney said in a statement.

UPS declined to comment on the motives behind the shooting. The shooter was identified as Jimmy Lam, a 38-year-old package car driver and an 18-year UPS employee. Lam had filed a grievance with the company in March complaining of too much overtime and requesting a cut in his working hours, a spokesman for the Teamsters Union, which represents UPS unionized workers, told the Associated Press.

Most warehouses and DCs lack the resources to make changes in security practices that could prevent similar attacks, said Mike Briggs, a partner in Beam LLC, an Atlanta-based consulting firm. "You can make a very secure environment, but it's expensive and you have to maintain it. Vigilance is always required," Briggs said in an interview today.

Pharmaceutical companies with DCs full of powerful narcotics are the exceptions to the rule, he added. Such facilities require employees to change into uniforms and leave all personal items in lockers outside a security gate. Other practices include extended background checks, buddy-system rules barring workers from being alone in certain rooms, and "man-traps," which are rooms designed to stop someone who tries to illegally enter a building by following closely behind a legitimate employee passing through a card-access door.

However, the cost of implementing those procedures is beyond the reach of many warehouse operators, and workplace efficiency is sapped when workers have to pass through airport-like security to reach the bathroom or take a lunch break, Briggs said.

Another challenge is that enhanced security measures take up valuable square footage in warehouses. That is especially true with older buildings, he said. "In most of these older, more established metro areas, UPS has had these facilities for decades, and those older buildings are more challenging to retrofit," said Briggs.

HUMAN FOCUS

When it comes to preventing workplace violence, the most effective approach is to focus on human resources, Briggs said. "You can put in these systems, make the investment, and that can really help with basic loss prevention," he said. "But for a disgruntled, unhappy, mentally unhealthy employee, ultimately your best tools are trying to understand that person and knowing that they need help."

A company that is tuned into its workforce can track workers' behavior, note their comments to colleagues, monitor social media posts, and absorb that input in time to address potential problems. "It's cultural; knowing you're cared for in the workplace. That's probably the hardest thing to attain, but it is something that super high-attaining organizations are doing," he said.

It would have been hard for UPS to prevent the incident, because the shooter was employed at the facility, said Eric Peters, president and CEO of SensorThink, a logistics technology vendor that provides Internet of things (IoT) platforms for automated warehouses. "You look at this situation, it would have been almost impossible to prevent it, unless you put military-style security at the facility, like an embassy," he said.

Most warehouse security plans employ both a hardware technology approach—with sensors like digital video cameras, motion sensors, and proximity monitors—and also a human behavior approach, such as carefully screening employees before they are hired or looking at ways to reduce workplace stress, said Peters.

However, a security strategy can fall short when companies use it to meet two different goals, protecting both the facility's products and its people, he said. While grainy security cameras might help identify an employee who looted packages, they would not be of much use in preventing workplace violence.

Most DCs have a poor record of applying their own security protocols, largely because of the high turnover of warehouse employees and the frequent use of temporary workers to manage the holiday peak. "Most facilities are very lax; you have a primitive level of security in these buildings," Peters said. "There might be contact switches at doors, but those doors are often left open or propped ajar, and you have employees sneaking out to take smoking breaks."

That situation may begin to change as rapid advances in technology drive down the cost of sensors and IoT networks, allowing companies to track their employees in real time, Peters said. For example, if every worker carried a badge with a unique RFID tag, a warehouse could install readers to allow managers to tell whether workers were spending too long in the break room, were lingering in a restricted region of the warehouse, or they had ignored a fire alarm or evacuation order, he said.

About the Author

Ben Ames
Senior Editor
Ben Ames has spent 20 years as a journalist since starting out as a daily newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania in 1995. From 1999 forward, he has focused on business and technology reporting for a number of trade journals, beginning when he joined Design News and Modern Materials Handling magazines. Ames is author of the trail guide "Hiking Massachusetts" and is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.

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