Companies are increasingly committed to safety first and their duty of care to all employees, especially in potentially dangerous and stressful environments such as loading and unloading areas. Yet, with endemic staff shortages and the demand for faster and higher velocity fulfilment increasing, there is a very real risk that safety pledges will be compromised in the drive for operational efficiency. While regulators are continually pushing to improve working practices, for example by imposing limits on the weight lifted by individuals, how much longer can companies afford to rely on manual processes for unloading and loading? From fast-moving forklift trucks to the high working temperature within trailers and the constant noise of moving goods, these jobs are both physically and mentally challenging.
With changing employee expectations also contributing to the lack of available staff for tough, manual jobs, companies need to recognise that committing to a safety-first culture is no longer about complying with global regulations. It is about creating a working environment that effectively safeguards staff’s physical and mental well-being, as Wouter Satijn (pictured), Sales Director, Joloda Hydraroll, explains.
Businesses globally are more committed to employee safety today than ever before. Yet staff still experience both physical and mental risks every day. The latest figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show a 28% increase in worker injuries year on year and a steep rise in ill health compared to pre-pandemic levels. What’s more, stress, depression, and anxiety now account for 51% of work-related ill health cases.
In a world where recruiting and retaining employees remains extremely difficult, companies recognise the need to create a working environment that meets fast-increasing employee expectations. However, it remains extremely difficult to balance escalating operational demands with safeguarding staff. This is especially true in highly manual environments such as loading and unloading bays. These areas are hard places to work. In hot weather, temperatures can become intolerable, while trailers used for the cold chain are sub-zero. Add in the noise of forklifts moving goods on and off pallets, and the pressure on space, and it is little wonder that companies can struggle to recruit and retain employees in this area.
Not only is this an unpleasant job, but it can also be fraught with danger. The risks associated with forklift trucks operating alongside individuals walking and physically loading and unloading items are well established. Between 2017 and 2022, 34% of deaths were classified as struck by moving vehicle. The economic cost of workplace injuries is also very significant: in the UK alone, the total cost of workplace self-reported injuries and ill health in 2019/20 was £18.8 billion.
The safety risks do not only deter potential employees; they are also exacerbated by recruitment pressures and escalating demand. Tired, stressed, and overworked staff are inevitably more at risk of both physical injury and mental burnout. While industries globally are experiencing difficulties recruiting staff, the issue is now urgent within logistics, with the UK Warehousing Association (UKWA) campaigning for logistics and warehousing to be considered part of the Shortage Occupation List. A drop in staff numbers combined with the uplift in demand for warehousing and logistics facilities is creating an unsustainable situation that risks compromising employee well-being and, as a result, operational performance.
With the high levels of demand and pressure on warehouse and production space, many companies couldn’t add more staff even if they were available. The introduction of automation, especially in busy loading and unloading areas, is now vital if businesses are to create a safer working environment and one that allows people to have the most fulfilling jobs.
Automated loading systems remove the need for forklift trucks, immediately reducing the risk to employees. Instead of taking 45 minutes of highly physical activity to unload, the automated approach takes less than three minutes. Additional automation, such as connecting automated loading and unloading systems with conveyors or Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVS), further reduces the need for manual intervention.
Automation to Safeguard Well-Being
By using automation to remove hazardous, unpopular tasks, companies can improve the workforce experience, enhance safety, and reduce the deadline pressures that can affect mental well-being. Indeed, while the physical risks associated with manual unloading and loading are clear, companies must also consider the knock-on effect of manual process failures on other departments.
For example, goods that arrive damaged at the production line can lead to both delays and internal conflict, especially within industries such as automotive that depend upon incredibly specific and sophisticated just-in-time processes. Automating manual processes and integrating activities such as loading and unloading into the rest of the business provides complete, end-to-end visibility. It allows employees to identify and address problems, minimising the stress associated with a lack of control that can contribute to ill health.
An automated unloading and loading process makes the whole operation safer and more reliable. Goods move quickly through the loading docks, with no need for forklift trucks. Processes are more efficient, ensuring deadlines are hit and reducing pressure on staff. Space can be better optimised throughout the facility and the noise associated with manual processes is eradicated, creating a far calmer, low stress environment. Furthermore, with the entire process requiring far fewer people, scarce resources can be relocated to other, more interesting jobs, improving well-being and, as a result, improving retention.
Companies globally are facing up to a new employee reality. People are scarce and labour is hard to find, so why expect individuals to undertake hard, dangerous yet boring manual tasks that can be more efficiently completed by automation? Employees have more choice and higher expectations. Few want to work in a hot, dark, noisy loading area, lifting heavy loads repeatedly or handling dangerous items.
Reliance on manual processes in this part of the supply chain is surely becoming harder to justify for any company truly committed to safety and its duty of care to employees. Automation is the foundation for a better way of treating employees, and a chance to highlight a commitment to their physical and mental well-being.
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