Worker Safety: Decontamination Robots to the Rescue

Another factory, another outbreak of COVID-19. On April 29th it was reported that 890 workers at a Tyson Foods plant in Indiana have tested positive for the coronavirus. That is more than 40 percent of its workforce. It’s one of several meat processing facilities across the country that have voluntarily closed due to virus outbreaks. This is yet another corporate lapse in protecting worker safety.

Worker Safety is Not a Priority in the Meat Packing Industry

A Tyson representative said, “We’ve been screening worker temperatures, requiring protective face coverings and conducting additional cleaning and sanitizing. We’ve also implemented social distancing measures, such as workstation dividers and more breakroom space.” Workers report that social distancing is not being enforced in the plant. Further, retrofitting plants to help ensure that workers remain two meters apart would cost millions per plant and potentially disrupt production.

This week, Tyson Foods said that the food supply chain is breaking. The company warned that “millions of pounds of meat” will disappear from the supply chain as the coronavirus pandemic pushes food processing plants to close. This will lead to product shortages in supermarkets across the country, which in turn could lead to more panic buying and hoarding. This self-serving statement, in part, drove Trump to declare this a “critical infrastructure” industry under the Defense Production Act.

Better technologies and processes can enhance safety in the work setting, but companies, employees, and consumers all have a role to play. Companies need to provide the right equipment and enforce social distancing. Workers need to practice social distancing both at home, on the way to work, and in the workplace setting. Consumers need to recognize that even if products leaving a factory are safe, the outbound supply chain offers many opportunities for products to become contaminated.  Consumers, some health experts warn, really should be wiping down packages they get from the store or that are deliverd to their residence.

But in the meat packing industry, much of this low paid work is done by poor migrants that live many people to an apartment and get to work in buses. For these laborers, social distancing is not possible. Based on the economic insecurity of the labor force, this is a problem that the government and industry need to work together on.

Better Technology for Worker Safety During a Pandemic

Ultraviolet light technology can improve safety, not just in hospitals where the technology is increasingly being used, but in plants and warehouses. The application of this technology to logistics facilities is applicable because it is not just the meat packing industry that has factory workers worried about their safety. A May day work stoppage was organized by employees at Amazon, Whole Foods, Instacart, Walmart, FedEx, Target, and Shipt. They protested their employers’ failure to provide basic protections for frontline workers in the face of coronavirus.

Per Juul Nielsen, the CEO of UVD Robots explained how ultraviolet (UV) disinfection solutions work. “UV light, at a particular wavelength, has a germicidal effect. The light energy destroys the DNA structure of all microorganisms.  This technology has been around for 50 years. It was mainly used in sewage plants. In the last ten years it has been used to great effect to disinfectant surfaces and rooms, initially in hospitals.” The UV light, while not lethal to humans, could also damage a person’s skin and eyes, so the technology can’t not be used when people are present.

UVD Robots innovation was to put the 360-degree UV array on an autonomous mobile robot (AMR). The bot steers itself close to all surfaces. “Proximity very important,” Mr. Nielsen explained.

Worker Safety

Worker Safety Can Be Enhanced Using Antigermicidal AMRs

To sanitize an operating theater, for example, the bot would navigate itself around the room and approach high touch surfaces from all angles. High touch surfaces include not just operating equipment and patient beds, but door handles and equipment monitors. The UVD bot kills not just surface contamination, but also airborne particles. Further, the process is far quicker than using people. A hospital room would typically be disinfected in 10 to 12 minutes.

Complex equipment, with nooks and crannies, is difficult to fully clean. But Mr. Nielsen points out, that these indented surfaces are rarely touched. Further, the robot disinfectant process is not a cleaning process. Surfaces should be clean before the disinfectant process begins.

In a warehouse, where racks can extend 30 feet vertically and pickers select orders from lifts, these bots would not be effective. But the bots could disinfect high velocity pick locations, which are located ground level in locations that are easy to pick from. The bots could also be used in break rooms. Finally, packages could be staged and then disinfected before being shipped.

The way the process is initiated when the equipment is delivered, is that the route the bot will travel is established by having a person steering the bot around the building. The bot learns and memorizes its surroundings based on this. Following this, the bot uses sensors and simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) technology to navigate autonomously. If there is an unexpected obstacle, a chair in a patient room is out of its proper location for example, the bot will navigate around the obstacle and send an alert to a designated team member showing that location has not been disinfected. Typically, the cleaning staff clears an area of a hospital, then the bot is released to disinfect those locations.

Mr. Nielsen reports that the pandemic has led to increased interest in this technology in factories and warehouses. Production is scaling. The company was already growing by 400 percent per year. Now it is growing three to four times faster than the 400 percent it was already growing. When I asked if a factory wanted 20 of these units how fast they could be delivered, Mr. Nielson said the company could get them in about four weeks.

I also talked price with Mr. Nielsen. I’ve studied the use of AMRs in ecommerce warehouses to increase picking efficiency and understood how those AMRs are priced and the robust payback they offer. These disinfectant AMRs, it seems to me, have an even stronger value proposition based on the combination of safety and labor efficiencies.

Any technology that can reduce the spread of the disease is welcome. This technology will not be a silver bullet, but it can be one way a company can show that worker safety is a priority.

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