As businesses begin to plan a “restart” after weeks of shutdown during the Covid-19 crisis, some companies are looking at supply chain operations for lessons on how “essential” sectors have continued to operate throughout the pandemic while keeping workers safe.
Throughout the pandemic, delivery trucks and distribution centers have continued to run at full speed in order to deliver critical supplies of groceries and medical equipment. To support their work under those strained conditions, many firms have applied new processes to balance workplace safety and warehouse efficiency.
So when broader sectors of the country begin returning to work, they may find that familiar warehouse workflows have changed in order to protect material handling workers from coronavirus infection. For example, in an effort to reduce the number of “high touch” surfaces workers contact during the day, more warehouses may adopt keyless ignition for forklifts, according to Chris Wolfe, CEO of asset management solution provider PowerFleet Inc. Instead of requiring lift truck drivers to exchange physical ignition keys before and after every shift, they could just tell workers to wave their employee access cards at a wireless receiver on the vehicle. The process works in a similar way that visitors use key fobs to enter locked office buildings or dormitories.
“When you think about the simple process of key management, it’s usually kept in the manager’s office,” Wolfe said. “But a key can go through two or three hands in the chain of custody between shifts. People have started asking ‘Why are you touching so many things?’, at least without knowing whether it was wiped down first.”
Likewise, warehouse managers could avoid using paper checklists—which are typically collected in an office and filed by hand—in favor of using their own tablet computer to generate a digital checklist. That approach could reduce the number of physical workplace contacts, while still allowing managers to ensure that employees follow coronavirus protection steps like wiping down a machine after using it, Wolfe said.
According to PowerFleet, the use of access cards could also help companies perform “contact tracing” when employees do come down with Covid-19, because the company’s software can log the bluetooth signals on identification cards, vehicles, and other assets, then build models of contacts between them.
Ensuring social distance between warehouse employees has been especially challenging during the Covid-19 pandemic because historic spikes of demand in certain sectors have required businesses to significantly increase the number of workers in each distribution center, says Roger Counihan, chief revenue officer at CognitOps, an Austin, Texas-based startup building a “warehouse operating system” to manage the proliferation of supply chain point solutions like robotics and automation.
“While designing a facility with pre-planned congestion constraints is standard practice, actively managing congestion, dynamically assigning workers across zones, and keeping those team members utilized while at the same time operating is far more critical,” Counihan said in a recent white paper.
At the same time, that increase in the congestion of front-line logistics workers will likely be sustained beyond the eventual end of the Covid-19 crisis, based on a long-term acceleration in the shift to e-commerce, he said.
In response, logistics operations have been building new strategies on the fly to support the safety and health of their growing teams, Counihan said. As workers return to warehouse jobs after coronavirus restrictions lift and the economy begins to rebound, they may find that some of those new strategies remain, such as:
To see further coverage of the coronavirus crisis and how it's affecting the logistics industry, check out our Covid-19 landing page. And click here for our compilation of virus-focused websites and resource pages from around the supply chain sector.
During this critical time with COVID-19, there are many ways you can leverage your forklift telematics to enhance worker social distancing.— PowerFleet (@PowerFleet_Inc) April 6, 2020
Learn more: https://t.co/QCkoFwtLfp#forklifts #materialhandling #lifttruck #warehouse #3pl #manufacturing #telematics #supplychain pic.twitter.com/bIS2xs5As8