Wearable technology: The future of work in the warehouse

FM Logistic has conducted several campaigns over the past four years to analyse the movements and postures of order pickers, using connected work jackets and trousers.

On April 26, 2022

Protecting  worker’s health in the warehouse and offering valuable physical insights into the behaviours and postures, that’s what wearable technology can do to help with enhancing the productivity levels, and improving the image of the profession, among the future workers.

Occupational diseases and accidents are estimated by the International Labor Organization to cause nearly 3 million deaths, and 374 million non-fatal injuries per year, while lost time due to injury or illness could account for up to 4% of GDP. Among the worst-hit industries, according to Eurostat, transportation and storage are assigned the second and sixth position for fatal and non-fatal accidents, respectively. While these figures admittedly include road-related accidents, warehouses are nonetheless deemed hazardous environments, with the presence of the moving machinery, and the need for manual cargo-handling. 

Technology inspired by elite sport

The logistics industry is therefore taking steps to improve the physical working conditions of warehouse employees, taking their lead from sports innovation, where the so-called “wearable tech” is harnessed to push the boundaries of human ability. The list of wearable tech in the workplace can range from PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), such as hard hats and safety boots that assess hazards, through intelligent eyewear – issuing instructions and advice to the operator, to lift assistance aids, such as exoskeletons. Furthermore, according to BCG, introducing wearable tech can have a substantial impact on economic performance: raising revenue by 4% to 6% and reducing manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution costs by 10% to 20%, and working capital requirements by 15% to 30%.

Although the size of building a supply chain, by leveraging the wearable technology is enormous, it can lead to substantial improvements in performance. It can boost revenue by 4% to 6%, the customer service levels by 5 to 30 percentage points (pp), and EBITDA by 2 to 4 pp.

At FM Logistic, whose first sustainable performance lever is “taking care of our people”, occupational health and well-being are paramount concerns. To protect warehouse workers from injury in their demanding jobs, comprising physically strenuous activities, the group uses wearable technology to analyse their postures and movements, with the aim of helping them improve their work techniques, and thus reducing strain on one hand, and offering avenues for ergonomic workstation improvement on the other.

Analyse, inform, adapt, protect

Sensors that collect and record data of physical movement are increasingly available in the market. In France, FM Logistic has conducted several campaigns over the past four years to analyse the movements and postures of order pickers, using connected work jackets and trousers. In addition, the group recently set up an HSE (Health Safety Environment) innovation panel to source a more wearable and versatile solution to measure and analyse postures and movement. The panel chose the Clip&Go solution by SoterAnalytics, which monitors back and shoulder movements in real time, identifies the worker’s risk hot spots, and vibrates or beeps to warn the wearer in the event of a wrong movement. During testing on approximately 270 employees by FM Logistic’s Eastern Europe subsidiaries, the devices helped in reducing the number of hazardous movements by 30% over a 6-month period, and delivered an enriching set of ergonomic insights, to prevent workplace injury, especially in the warehouse.

Ultimately, this has also transformed into a standard practice to offer workers physical aids, in order to prevent strain and musculoskeletal disorders. 

Most frequently, exoskeletons (active assistance devices) are designed to protect the lumbar region and take off some of the strain, when lifting or moving loads. FM Logistic has tested and used around 30 devices in the past six years, across its different geographies, each country experimenting its locally available solutions, which may then be shared with the rest of the group. But, due to the wide variety of tasks, positions and movements performed by warehousing employees, many market-available exoskeletons prove to be too heavy or cumbersome to use, and can restrict movement at inappropriate time intervals. One such example is focused on the forklift drivers, whose tasks require them to frequently look upwards, tipping their head back, and placing stress on the cervical vertebrae. A passive device (known as ‘ergoskeleton’) strapped onto the shoulders serves as a headrest for this type of posture. 

FM Logistic France therefore joined forces with the University of Technology of Compiègne (UTC) to design a purpose-made ergoskeleton for its warehouse workers. “This harness, christened Ergoskel, weighs less than 2 kg since it has few mechanical parts,” says Romain Chevallet, Group Occupational Health and Well-being Manager. “It takes 80 seconds to fit and adjust like a backpack, and the wearer simply clips the straps to their gloves. They activate the mechanism manually when they lift a load, and the system disengages when they put it down. As a result, our solution supports the worker’s back and arms, just when they need assistance, and is unobtrusive the rest of the time.” This brand new innovation is set for the general market launch on April 1, 2022. 

The future of wearable technology is anchored in IoT and virtual reality. The postures and movements can be analysed on a worker’s smartphone. This involves coupling sensors and virtual reality, where one measures the gestures and postures of a worker, who performs his activity in a virtual work environment. This makes it possible to design ergonomic workstations. In terms of risk-hunting in virtual reality (recently deployed at FM Logistic), the worker walks through a FM Logistic warehouse, in virtual reality, and has to find health and safety anomalies.

Progressively making the warehouse a safer, and a less-strenuous work environment is key to attracting prospective workers, and retaining them in the long term, thereby catering to the industry’s growing demand for human resources.

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