Improving Worker Safety in a Fast-Moving E-Commerce Logistics Environment
Job sites with a lot of workers clustered together now need to be extra conscious of their employees’ health and safety. During the COVID-19 pandemic, distribution centers saw their fair share of positive cases.
Not only are viral outbreaks bad for employees, but they’re bad for the business as a whole. Employee illnesses, coupled with the need to shut down parts of the distribution center for cleaning and sanitizing, makes it more difficult to fulfill orders. Outbreaks can also bring bad publicity; even if there are only a small number of cases, companies receive bad PR once the media get wind of it.
While COVID-19 has been the catalyst for these changes to fulfillment centers, it is paramount that companies look to improve the health and safety of workers, prevent the spread of infectious diseases and minimize employee absenteeism. Epidemiologists are predicting more major outbreaks, and taking precautions now will help future-proof the business against further viral outbreaks.
Encourage Distance Between Employees
A lot of viruses are transmitted through droplets from coughing and sneezing, or when people touch each other after coughing and sneezing into their hands. Distribution centers used to be able to leverage high-density packing areas, with a lot of packers in the same area, to maximize throughput.
However, to keep employees safe and healthy, distribution centers now need to promote distance between workers. To do this, companies can take high volume equipment and set up individual pack stations with a machine and a hopper per operator, positioning equipment so that twisting, turning, and pulling is minimized to prevent repetitive stress injuries.
Another way to space out employees is to change the way pack stations are set up. For distribution centers that already have individual stations, instead of the stations facing each other, they can configure pack stations to face the same way. This will space out workers further. If there isn’t enough space to distance these stations by the recommended distance, Plexiglass shields can be installed between workstations.
Creating directional walking paths within a facility can also help to prevent close contact between employees moving within a facility. If there are multiple doors in or out of a break room for example, designate one for entering and a different door as an exit.
This may still require that distribution centers use fewer packers. One way to continue meeting order demand is to redeploy the extra workers in a supporting role. For example, they can be in charge of reloading packing machines with consumables so that the packer doesn’t have to stop packing, walk across the distribution center, retrieve materials, and refill the machine.
Another way to encourage distancing is to implement staggered or split shifts during peak cold and flu season. Because employees will be working with the same crew, this reduces contact among different groups of employees and the likelihood of viral transmissions, as well as allows for more thorough sanitizing of the workplace between shifts.
Implement Cleaning and Sanitizing Procedures
Some viruses, like cold and flu viruses, can live on contaminated surfaces for hours. While surfaces aren’t the primary way COVID-19 spreads, it’s still a possibility, according to the CDC, and it needs to be considered. For starters, workstations need to be cleaned and sanitized between shifts. All surfaces touched by workers, including control panels, computers, and handrails, should be wiped down thoroughly.
Additionally, special attention needs to be paid to washrooms, break rooms, and other areas where employees may congregate. If possible, employees need to wipe down common areas after using them. Providing disinfecting wipes can help them remember to do so.
Provide Hand Sanitizing Stations and Proper PPE
One easy way to prevent the spread of viruses is to make sure everyone is washing their hands regularly and using hand sanitizer. To that end, hand sanitizing stations need to be set up throughout the distribution center for regular, easy access. Employees also should be educated on proper hand hygiene, like restaurants require for their employees.
Proper personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks/face coverings and gloves, will also need to be supplied to prevent employees from spreading viruses through airborne droplets or inadvertently contaminating surfaces. As with any safety measure, it’s important to provide education on the proper way to use PPE.
For example, many people don’t know how to properly wear a mask. They might pull it under their nose and only wear it over their mouth. To get the most effectiveness, employees should wash their hands before handling a mask, pull the mask over their noses and mouths, and not touch the mask while they’re wearing it. They will also need to put on a fresh mask after eating and properly dispose of disposable masks in a closed trash container. As these policies take time to get used to, monitoring and enforcing PPE guidelines early and often will help workers get into the habit of using them correctly.
It can also be wise to screen workers before their shifts. In addition to asking the typical self-screening questions, like if they’ve been in contact with someone who has been diagnosed with a viral infection, proactively setting up temperature checks can help identify who might be ill and prevent them from potentially infecting their coworkers.
Worker Safety Is Key to Continuity
Ultimately, worker health is critical to continuing operations in e-commerce logistics. Simple precautions like distancing, sanitizing, and worker hygiene can help prevent the spread of infectious diseases among employees. Reconfiguring equipment where employees spend the bulk of their workday can also play a large role, minimizing close contact while maximizing workspaces.