Remote forklifts can improve worker safety in the warehouse and solve labor retention challenges.
Warehouse work is dangerous. It’s not easy to move materials and goods quickly through busy, dynamic environments, often riddled with hazards: Tight corners. Blind curves. Heavy pallets. Slippery floors. Forklifts zipping about.
More than 7,000 forklift-related injuries have happened per year since 2012. Accidents aside, driving a forklift can take a physical toll, too. Steering, twisting, craning necks, and bending over repeatedly can do an ergonomic number on drivers' hands, necks, shoulders, and backs as they complete long shifts in cramped vehicle cabs—often at uncomfortable temperatures. Painful repetitive strain injuries can lead to extended absenteeism, more down time, higher workers' comp costs, and shorter careers.
From chilly cold chain operations to humid distribution centers, warehouse workers often clock hours under extreme temperatures ranging from sub-freezing to makeshift industrial sauna. Some warehouses are dusty and dimly lit. The uncomfortable conditions can bruise employee job satisfaction and slow production.
It's no surprise that warehouse employee retention has been a chronic problem for the supply chain. And in the age of the Great Resignation, workers have many more employment options to consider, ranging from gig work to skilled trades, remote customer service jobs, technology jobs, and even online entrepreneurship. This is especially true for young workers, who are not filling warehouse jobs at a sufficient replacement rate to offset an aging and retiring workforce.
The true costs of the worker retention challenge in warehousing are shocking:
- It costs $8,500 to hire and fill new forklift operator roles
- Yet warehouses have a 43% average annual employee churn rate
- The Congressional Budget Office projects the labor force to grow at just 3.6% from 2023-2031, and slow to 2.9% from 2032-2042
Poor employee retention due to safety and comfort concerns can jolt the bottom line.
How Remote Operation Can Help
The good news?
The remote work revolution has arrived at the warehouse.
Remote operation can mitigate worker safety and comfort challenges by providing employees the ability to control forklifts from thousands of miles away.
The technology represents a win-win for an industry getting squeezed from all sides:
- Employees operating remote material handling equipment can be relocated away from the dangerous warehouse floor, reducing their exposure to hazards that result in serious injury.
- Employers can tap into drivers from anywhere, creating a virtually unlimited talent pool.
Investing in warehouse safety can have a large impact on a company's finances by reducing operational costs associated with worker compensation claims, lost productivity time, and hiring and training expenses.
In 2020, 78 forklift-related fatalities were recorded in the U.S.
Safety Risks in the Warehouse
Warehouse safety hazards range from risks of forklift accidents and falling objects, to environmental issues like poor ventilation and slippery floors.
The impacts can be severe. In addition to the human cost (tragically, about 70 forklift-related fatalities occur annually), over $250B is spent on workplace injuries in the U.S. every year.
Forklift operators have a particularly dangerous job:
- 11% of all forklifts in the U.S. are involved in an accident each year
- Every one in four days on average, a forklift driver dies on the job
- Per the National Safety Council, forklift mishaps led to 7,290 nonfatal injuries resulting in 17 days away from work on average in 2020
While difficult to think about, it must be acknowledged that some warehouse accidents can be truly grim. Workers can be struck by a passing forklift, or pinned to the racks or a wall.
Though a third of all forklift accidents involve a pedestrian, the driver is the one most at risk. Forklifts may tip over due to improper handling, uneven surfaces, or umbalanced loads. Drivers can be trapped in a rollover. Vibrating forklift seats can lead to back injuries, and whiplash injuries like headaches and dizziness can impact concentration and sleep.
In 2020, 7,290 forklift-related injuries and illnesses in the U.S. resulted in days away from work.
Ergonomics & Repetitive Strain Injuries
Forklift drivers often sit or stand for extended periods in a tight space, without the right lumbar support or anti-fatigue floor mats. This can lead to distracting pain, or trigger something longer-lasting, such as a pinched sciatica nerve. Repetitive strain injuries (RSI) from constant motions can also damage tendons and nerves, which may require physical therapy, and force workers off the floor indefinitely.
One particular advantage of remote operation? While operators on a forklift may need to twist their backs or necks and bend awkwardly to be able to see behind them or around their loads, remote operators have multiple camera viewpoints on a single forward-facing monitor. No twisting or neck-craning required. Remote operators can easily see in all directions, shifting perspectives with the push of a button.
As an added benefit, cameras, sensors, and safety systems augment the operator's capabilities, giving them "superpowers" that operators do not have during manual vehicle operation.
With remote forklift operation, the driver moves from the vehicle to a comfortable workstation.
Worker Comfort Matters, Too
Extreme temperatures, excessive noise, poor air, and bad lighting can all contribute to a taxing work atmosphere. The less comfortable the employee is at the workplace, the more likely they are to look for a different line of work.
Cold Chain Complications
Cold chain storage for perishable foods, pharmaceuticals, and other products pose unique challenges for worker safety, comfort, and productivity. Refrigerated storage temperatures for products including meat, poultry, and certain vaccines hover around 28°- 40°F, while frozen storage used for frozen foods, laboratory samples, and more can typically range from 0°- 32°F.
Prolonged exposure to cold or freezing temperatures increases the risk of frostbite, cold stress, and hypothermia. The cold can numb a worker's hands, affecting their ability to safely operate equipment and handle materials. Safety goggles may fog or ice up, impairing visibility; ice buildup on floors can cause slips and falls.
Per the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers have a responsibility to provide workers with a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards, including cold stress, which are likely to cause them serious harm or death. Employers should train workers on cold stress, provide engineering controls, and use safe work practices.
Though the Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn't have specific standards that cover working in cold environments, OSHA guidelines say companies should give workers frequent breaks to warm up, and workers should wear at least three layers of clothing to prevent cold stress.
Cold chain workers often rotate out for 10-15 minutes every hour. Each time they leave or enter cold storage, they have to shed or add layers of protective clothing. Much more important than the resulting loss in productivity, studies show that exposure to cold environments can impair cognitive functions and judgment, impacting memory, processing speed, and attention.
Mistakes, or worse, accidents, can happen as a result of prolonged exposure to the cold.
Working in extreme cold or hot environments requires workers to take frequent breaks.
High heat can be similarly taxing for employees and disruptive to work productivity. Workers in hot environments are at risk of developing cramps, dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.
Extreme heat can also exacerbate existing health issues, like diabetes or cardiovascular disease. Studies suggest that workers with preexisting conditions may be at higher risk of a health episode while working in high heat.
During times of extreme heat, productivity slows down. For safety reasons, workers need more frequent breaks. High humidity can result in wet-bulb temperatures—a condition where it's so hot and humid, the body can’t create sweat to shed its excess heat causing body temperatures to soar dangerously high.
It can be brutal for forklift drivers who have to work on a 9,000 pound industrial machine all day.
Bad Air, Loud Noises, Poor Lighting
If a warehouse lacks good ventilation, workers may face unseen safety dangers in the air they breathe. Dust and airborne particles—which can trigger respiratory illnesses and allergies— often lead to employee downtime. Acute respiratory illnesses are known to cause about one-third of all total sick days in working populations, with a total cost of lost productivity to employers in the billions annually.
A Center for Disease Control and Prevention study showed a full-time employee could expect to lose 3.5 of their 5 work days in a given week from respiratory illnesses, which have a negative impact on productivity in the days following symptom onset, too.
Over the long term, exposure to dust, fumes, and exhaust can result in lung damage and asthma. Plus, it's just not comfortable working somewhere difficult to breathe. Shortness of breath can cause fatigue, impact productivity, and create a difficult working environment.
Loud noises can also drive stress levels up. This stress can impact a worker’s mental health and wellness. Studies show that exposure to too much noise during the workday can have a negative effect on sleep quality.
Dimly-lit spaces can cause eye strain and headaches. Poor lighting contributes to fatigue and can make it tough to read warning signs and instructions, increasing the chances of a warehouse accident.
People Are Choosing Less Physically Demanding Work
Remote work has changed the employment game. Once the “work from anywhere” genie escaped the bottle, there was no putting it back. Workers today have more options than ever before for work that is less physically demanding.
The e-commerce boom has driven the need for delivery drivers to unprecedented heights, as companies from Amazon to UPS and Doordash all have customers expecting quick, on-demand service.
Remote job options span a wide range of skills too, with plenty of telecommuting options in fields including online customer service and tech support. Gig economy platforms like TaskRabbit and Fiverr are creating flexible, on-demand work opportunities for people seeking freelance or part-time work. It’s never been easier to start an online business through platforms like Shopify or Etsy. People are even getting paid to play video games.
The timing is right and the technology is here for the remote work revolution to come to blue-collar jobs. With warehouses grappling with labor shortages, innovative solutions will be needed to help logistics companies continue to meet the increased demand for their services.
Enter Phantom Auto and remote operation.
Phantom Auto's remotely operated forklifts can be driven from locations up to thousands of miles away.
The Remote Operation Solution
Remote operation introduces a safer way for workers to move goods and materials around the warehouse. By taking workers out of harm’s way, remote operation eliminates risk for forklift operators and minimizes the threats of on-site accidents and injuries. It safeguards employees from physical hazards and reduces the impact of worker absenteeism and downtime.
By enabling drivers to work from a comfortable workstation, rather than on a vehicle in the warehouse, remote operation provides a more attractive option in a hyper-competitive labor market. Furthermore, the increased safety and comfort of remote operation can lead to a happier workforce, and reduce turnover.
Remote operation can alleviate the labor challenges in logistics by offering employees not just a safer work experience, but a pathway to unlock growth. Logistics companies can use the technology to address labor hiring and retention challenges by tapping into a broader geographical talent pool, while attracting a more diverse group of candidates, including veterans, women, and people with disabilities.
As logistics companies continue to build the supply chain workflows of the future, remote operation is a technology job that can solve the labor shortage in logistics by matching people who want to work with jobs that need to be filled.
Phantom Auto is leading the effort to bring remote operation to the warehouse.
Phantom Auto's Remote Operation Solution
Phantom Auto’s remotely operated forklifts can be driven from thousands of miles away. By decoupling labor from location, Phantom is helping define a new standard for blue-collar work. Phantom’s technology reduces employee exposure to hazards, physical strain, and extreme environments, and contributes to a more comfortable, productive workplace environment.
Phantom places the highest priority on safety. By rebuilding every layer of our cutting-edge video-streaming stack from the ground up, our end-to-end integrated technology works with industry-leading OEM vehicles to deliver secure, low-latency communication over volatile wireless networks for safe remote vehicle control. We use a layered safety methodology combining real-time LiDAR sensing, automation technology, human intuition, and best practices in military drone software development to create overlapping safeguards that enable operators to confidently command a vehicle as if they are actually sitting in the cab.
Phantom’s safety features offer key capabilities that enable safe remote operation:
- LiDAR sensors and safety encoders that can intelligently slow or stop the vehicle while providing the human operator with spatial awareness of the surrounding environment
- 360° mounted cameras with directional views, so operators can see what’s behind them
- Multi-axis barcode scanning for safe and reliable WMS integration
- Two-way audio communication between the remote operator and on-site staff, enabling hybrid operations and mixed environments where humans can safely work alongside unmanned vehicles
- Control systems that automatically slow or stop the vehicle in rare cases of latency spikes, network connection issues, or power outages
- Remotely-activated e-stop, horn, speed gauges, and object detection and avoidance systems
- Safety field alarm lights, start-up lights, and blue position indicator lighting fields
To learn more about Phantom’s layered safety approach for remotely operated forklifts, schedule a call today.