Exoskeletons: The Next Generation of Warehouse Safety

At the beginning of the year, Steve Banker and I launched a survey with DC Velocity to examine best practices for achieving excellence in warehouse operations. The research employs the balanced scorecard strategic planning management system. The resulting report looks at what high-performing warehouses are doing differently than other distribution operations. The big question then is what exactly is a “high-performing warehouse?” The survey looked at a number of metrics and best practices that warehouses measure and applied a weighted average to how respondents performed. We defined a high-performing warehouse as one that performs well in terms of productivity, customer service, the way it treats their employees, and safety. While many respondents did well in some of these performance areas, only 17 percent did well in all of them.  These high performers in all dimensions represented the Top Tier.

The table to the left highlights how respondents scored across each of these criteria. On the safety dimension, a very large proportion of respondents reported working in safe warehouses, which made it difficult to identify the specific factors that contribute to safety. However, the fact that over 87 percent of respondents indicated that their warehouse is safe (based on how employees feel) shows the importance that warehouses place on safety. There are a number of factors that play into the safety of a warehouse, including proper lighting, proper training, availability of safety equipment, and guidance on safe lifting techniques to name just a few.

Guidance on safe lifting techniques is one that really stands out to me having worked multiple summers in a warehouse picking and packing orders. We were certainly never trained on appropriate lifting techniques, nor were we given back-saving safety belts. However, this was also 20 years ago, and warehouses have come a long way in their quest for safety. In the last couple of weeks I have come across a few articles about companies that are taking safety initiatives a step further to ensure that their employees remain safe. Two of the companies I have read about are specifically tackling he issue of heavy lifting and work fatigue: GEODIS and Lowe’s.

GEODIS is a 3PL that began using an exoskeleton developed by the Dutch firm Laevo in its warehouses in Venlo, the Netherlands. The exoskeletons are an external lower back brace that are designed to provide support for warehouse worker’s lower backs while lifting and carrying objects during their shift. The exoskeleton uses a spring system that acts as a counterweight to the worker’s back, and, according to GEODIS and Laevo, can reduce the load on the back by 40 percent. For an average warehouse employee that lifts roughly 10,000 pounds per day, that is a savings of 4,000 pounds on their backs. That is a considerable load to be taken off of an employee and will certainly keep them more productive and safe while on the job.

Home improvement giant Lowe’s is also implementing some lift-assist technology within the warehouse. The company has partnered with Virginia Tech to develop a wearable robotic suit that helps employees lift and move heavy objects within the warehouse. Unlike the GEODIS exoskeleton which is spring-based, the suit developed for Lowe’s is robotic to help alleviate back strains during the work day. These suits reinforce proper lifting techniques and are able to absorb and transfer energy back to the employee. The suit contains carbon fibers in the legs and back which, as the energy is transferred, allows the employee to spring back up from a bending position more easily. Like the GEODIS exoskeleton, the goal is to maximize safety while improving the efficiency of warehouse workers.

In conclusion, safety will continue to be top of mind for today’s warehouses. And while there are a number of factors that go into evaluating a safe working environment, avoiding injuries incurred by lifting heavy objects is certainly one of them. Proper training and an emphasis on lifting techniques is a requirement to keep workers safe. However, as GEODIS and Lowe’s have shown, the next generation of wearable technology can aid in the process as well.

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