Recently, there were numerous conversations among warehouse and distribution center operators, heavy equipment manufacturers and labor experts about what more can be done to improve forklift safety as rising fulfillment demands spur an increase in both foot and vehicle traffic. Some recommended improving equipment maintenance practices or implementing a floor marking system while others suggested that it would be more effective to focus on stricter certification requirements or more extensive workforce training.
Though all great suggestions, I believe that forklift safety is also contingent upon workers’ ability to…
- Sense who and what is around them at all times (even if out of sight).
- Analyze potential collision hazards and whether or not there are alternative routes or measures that can be taken to mitigate collisions.
- Act immediately to avert collisions based on the intelligence delivered via alert and/or navigation systems.
Fortunately, the technology tools needed to collect, analyze and distribute the data needed for forklift operators and others on the warehouse floor or shipyard to maintain such situational awareness are already quite prolific in warehousing distribution environments. With some slight feature customizations and the right software applications, mobile computing platforms and track and trace technologies, fleet monitoring, workforce routing and driver behaviors can be improved. These solutions could also help automate key safety measures such as safety checklist completion and proximity alerting.
How Real-Time Location Systems (RTLS) Can Be Used to Deliver Real-Time Guidance to Forklift Operators
There are a number of RFID, Bluetooth® Low Energy (BLE), Ultra-Wideband (UWB), Wi-Fi and sensor technologies used in manufacturing, warehousing and distribution environments today to track and trace the location of materials and equipment and locate the presence of people in real time. Why not just tap into these same technologies to track the movements of people who are operating the equipment that’s being used to move those materials and alert them when they’re on a collision path?
The same RTLS algorithms used to analyze professional athletes’ routes on the field could be used to better predict and/or analyze forklift movements to mitigate the risk of impacts with anyone and anything. With some engineering, location engines could be leveraged to create interaction awareness and rules and even create geofences that help restrict forklift movements to dynamic “safe” zones. With proper integration, such solutions could be leveraged to cap vehicle speeds in known congestion areas or dynamically based on real-time foot traffic hot spot data.
How Mobile Computing Technologies Can Keep Forklift Operators Moving Around Safely
Many people might say that vehicle-mounted mobile computers and tablets would distract forklift operators, diverting their attention down to the screen for dispatch and navigation guidance. Yet, mobile computers can be quite an effective “heads up” mechanism.
For example, embedded Bluetooth, GPS and sensing technologies can be used to identify potential obstacles in a forklift’s proximity and prompt an audible alert via the mobile computer. Mobile computers that run applications synced with RTLS could operate similarly, leveraging the data collected via RFID, UWB or Bluetooth Low Energy and analyzed by a location engine to “see” and alert forklift operators to people, pallets or equipment in their current path.
Workflow software could then trigger a collision warning on the mounted mobile computer and even help divert or delay forklifts via on-screen, real-time guidance. Depending on the situation, forklifts could either be re-routed or simply instructed to wait while the obstacle is cleared. If the “obstacle” is another worker moving around on foot, that person could also potentially be alerted that a forklift is approaching to increase situational awareness and prompt fast action.
Remember, communication is key to forklift safety – and workplace safety overall – and mobile computers are the ideal communication platform for all workers.
Along those lines, mobile computers can also be used to automate safety checklist processes and communicate compliance back to supervisors. Forklift operators can simply login with a scan of their badge to confirm that safety-related inspections and actions have been taken before, during and after their shifts via configurable device dashboards. When the checklist is marked as complete, workflow software essentially creates a record that can easily be retrieved for safety reporting and auditing purposes.
Additionally, vehicle-mounted mobile computers and tablets can serve as impact detection tools. With the right feature set and proper integration with the on-board vehicle system, a mobile computing solution could monitor driver behavior and report collisions to help inform training, automate components of incident investigations and reports and ultimately reducing truck, facility and product damage.
Of course, extensive measures must be taken to prevent unauthorized parties from being able to inadvertently operate material handling equipment and other heavy machinery as well as keep tabs on who operates them and when, should an incident later be reported. Plugging a mounted tablet or handheld mobile computer into a forklift’s ignition system can help give insight into and control over vehicle access. A PIN code input or simple scan of a proxy badge, key fob or barcoded ID card can ensure that only assigned and certified/authorized employees are operating the vehicle. Positive operator identification can also help create an accurate usage log, which has multiple benefits.
Understanding run time versus idle time or when items were loaded on and off the truck can help with workflow (and worker) efficiency analysis and improvement. If they were moving too fast or moving around too long, that could inherently increase safety risks depending on the environment. Forklift utilization data also helps inform vehicle maintenance actions to ensure systems are running optimally, which reduces potential safety risks for the operator due to mechanical failures.
The actionable intelligence needed to reduce forklift-related incidents to “zero” will be more attainable using the same technologies your workers are already using today to guide their other actions. However, the key to expanding a hardware platform’s applicability to forklift safety lies heavily in the software. The real-time location systems and mobile computers you are utilizing across your operations today are likely equipped with the right functional features to support the uses cases described, such as built-in barcode scanners, RFID tag readers, GPS, near-field communication (NFC) and BLE.
But without the right software, these devices won’t know what to do with the data they are sensing and collecting. It’s the software that enables you to dictate how that data should be analyzed and how the actionable insights derived from that data should be distributed back across your operation. The software is also what will ultimately tell workers what to do, when to do it and in the right order to do it to protect their safety as well as the people and assets around them.
So, as you’re considering ways in which technology can help facilitate new safety measures, monitor forklift operations, reduce accidents and improve reporting accuracy, be sure you are assessing the applicability and efficacy of the hardware and software holistically.
If you’re interested in learning more about what it would take to implement some of these technology-based forklift safety tools, the Zebra warehousing/DC team would be happy to review your current technology architecture and recommend new applications that could meet your needs.