A few weeks ago, I bought a used paperback mystery for $3 via a small online bookseller. Intrigued that the book came with free shipping, I dug in a bit and was shocked to see that my little impulse purchase traveled through seven different distribution hubs across five states before it got to me. It was loaded and unloaded onto trucks in Indiana, Illinois, Colorado, Nevada and finally California and handled by an unknown number of logistics workers along the way, many of them in the middle of the night.
The logistics of getting the book to me, and the human toll it takes, are mind boggling, but we have become somewhat inured to them.
COVID-19 lockdowns have put a spotlight on the importance and complexity of supply chain dynamics. In a world shaped by the pandemic, our reliance on e-commerce for everything from PPE to toilet paper to hard-boiled paperback mysteries has exploded. A recent report from Adobe found that total online spending is up 77% year-over-year, accelerating growth by “four to six years.” That growth has a very real human cost, and one that we don’t think about or act on enough as a society.
While people recognize the contributions of frontline workers they can see like doctors and nurses, postal carriers and grocery store workers, there’s an entire hidden infrastructure of logistics workers that keeps the online economy humming. These workers are also on the frontlines, but they are behind the scenes. Most earn minimum wage and work long, grueling, high-stress shifts without strong protections in the event they get sick or injured. The fact is that many corporations haven’t made protections for those workers a priority. That was true before COVID-19, but the pandemic gave the issue a renewed urgency, prompting workers from Amazon, Walmart, Target and FedEx, among others, to organize walkouts. And with unprecedented levels of unemployment, more and more people are going to find jobs in the logistics sector.
This Labor Day, it’s time to think about how corporations can better support and protect this vital but often forgotten segment of the workforce.
Better safety in the warehouse
Imagine there’s a package handler at a major manufacturer named Jack who spends his shifts heaving heavy boxes onto a conveyor belt. It’s an arduous movement that Jack will repeat a few thousand times before he punches out. As a 10-year veteran on the job, Jack has performed this singular task on this same warehouse floor more times than he can count. On this particular night, he’s tired after staying up late playing with his kids, and he slips a disk in his back. Unfortunately, Jack’s plight is all too often a reality for millions of workers today.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 5% of warehouse workers in the U.S. experience an injury on the job each year—higher than the national average. After service workers, like firefighters and police, transportation/shipping and manufacturing/production rank second and third as the occupations with the largest number of workplace injuries resulting in days away from work. Jobs that involve heavy lifting, arduous repetition and operating complex machinery come with serious risk.
Injuries can be devastating for workers, both physically and financially. Taking time off work can not only result in lost wages, but also drive people into debt due to health-related expenses, creating health-poverty traps that are difficult to climb out of. Worker injuries are also costly for employers. A study from Liberty Mutual, using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Academy of Social Insurance, found that serious, nonfatal injuries cost $84.04 million a week in the transportation and warehousing industry. It is in corporations' best interest to prioritize workplace safety.
One challenge is that traditional approaches to workplace safety are slow, inaccurate and costly. Without practical interventions, organizations spend an estimated $2,000+ per worker annually on injury prevention. Within manufacturing and logistics industries, it costs an additional $2,000+ annually for workers’ compensation per full-time employee. Currently, there is no standard solution to preventing workplace injuries while lowering costs, leaving workers like Jack without adequate protections. Fortunately, digital platforms and tools that leverage technological innovation, including sensors and wearables, are advancing new ways to prevent workplace accidents and injuries.
Take for example StrongArm, one of Flourish’s portfolio companies. StrongArm has built a technology platform that integrates a new generation of industrial wearables, big data analytics and smart algorithms. It is designed to modernize industry dynamics for workers, employers and workers’ compensation insurers. The company’s GDPR-compliant wearable hardware devices and data platform called FUSE deliver real-time injury prevention feedback and collect data to support precise interventions for overall injury reduction and has reduced injury rates by more than 40% year-over-year for its clients.
StrongArm has also helped keep workers safe during the pandemic by launching a new suite of capabilities on its FUSE platform, including CDC communication, proximity alerts (i.e., notifications to workers within six feet of one another), and exposure analysis (understanding who has interacted with whom, at what time, and for what duration, exposing any potential contact transfer with accuracy). These enhanced capabilities can get workers back to work faster, earning vitally needed income while reducing COVID-19 risk by 95%.
Fetch Robotics is another company using technological innovation and digital platforms to promote worker safety. Fetch makes an Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMR) that can transport materials within warehouses, factories and distribution centers while also gathering environmental data. This can relieve the burden of heavy lifting from human workers and ensure that conditions, like heat, remain safe in work environments. In June 2020, the company announced that it was launching a disinfecting AMR that can decontaminate spaces larger than 100,000 square feet in 1.5 hours, helping workers stay safe and get back to work quicker amid the spread of the virus.
Employers should do more
In its report titled, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Tech Innovation,” Lux Research found that the outbreak of COVID-19 will likely push corporations with major manufacturing and logistics operations to assess the potential of robotics. More companies will explore how they can automate processes, particularly those that are repeatable and predictable. Findings like these inevitably lead to questions about how increased automation will impact workers — the eternal “will robots take all the jobs?” question. However, we are still a long way away from a world where human workers are obsolete (just ask Elon Musk).
Robots are still not good at picking up small or oddly shaped objects, for instance. For the foreseeable future, corporations will depend on logistics workers and have a responsibility to protect the safety of those workers. It’s not enough to plaster the required OSHA sign on the factory or warehouse floor. Corporations need to do more. Fortunately in this case, the right thing to do is the good thing to do. By embracing technological innovation, promoting worker safety is a win-win.