The UK’s buoyant economy is boosting business for warehouse and distribution centres across the country. However, the industry is still facing a shortage of skilled workers, particularly forklift truck drivers, which gives rise to a number of issues that could increase the risk of accidents. Charlie Brackley, Sales Manager at Harland Simon, looks at how incidents can occur and explores the latest location aware technology designed to prevent them.

The UK economy grew by a solid 0.5 per cent in the final quarter of 2015, taking the overall growth between 2014 and 2015 to 2.2 per cent. One of the main drivers of this growth is consumer spending, with gross domestic expenditure increasing by 2.7 per cent over the last year1. This, in turn, is having an impact on the logistics industry as warehouses are processing more goods and consequently need more staff.

Indeed, the logistics sector already employs about eight per cent of the UK workforce and this figure is expected to grow by approximately 1.2 million additional workers by 2022 to meet the changing needs of the country. This growth does not come without its challenges, particularly as there is a nationwide shortage of skilled forklift truck operators.

Perhaps most alarming is the potential impact on worker safety this staff shortage can have. For example, operating in an extremely pressured environment inevitably opens up the risk of accidents, with both pickers and drivers of mechanical handling equipment (MHE) vehicles rushing about focussing on their heavy workloads and individual performance. Equally, new drivers recruited by a company will be inherently less safe as they undergo their initial on the job training and the scarcity of skilled drivers often means agency staff, with limited knowledge of the organisation-specific safety protocols, will have to be used, increasing the likelihood of incidents.

The shocking statistics speak for themselves. Approximately six people die every year because of MHE collisions in UK warehouse and logistics environments, while some 8,000 injuries are also reported. Cases of serious injury or death inevitably lead to tremendous financial loss and often irreparable damage to the reputation of the business. The use of guard rails, safety lines and hi-vis work wear may be a given, yet the dangers cannot be entirely eliminated with these precautions alone.

For example, forklift operators will cover large expanses over the course of a working day, alongside many other drivers and pedestrians in the same vicinity. Even the most responsible and conscientious among them will suffer from unavoidable blind spots and points of limited vision, particularly when transporting large loads that can obstruct the rear-view. This can, at best, lead to near misses or, at worst, collisions and the resulting severe consequences.

To avoid such incidents, warehouse managers might install proximity sensors on MHE vehicles, designed to alert the driver if they come close to other people or forklifts. The concept behind these devices is undeniably intelligent, however, in practice the sensors are unable to detect whether the person is safely behind a guard rail or not and this can commonly trigger a false alarm. The problem here is that frequent false alarms can lead to driver complacency, which can become a significant hindrance to safety in warehouses.

There are now alternative methods of enhancing safety in the workplace thanks to the introduction of sophisticated location aware technology. The next generation of safety solutions use Wi-Fi and provide real-time warnings to detect and capture the precise position and speed of people and forklift trucks. They can also distinguish between static and moving objects. Furthermore, high quality systems, such as VeroSafe from Harland Simon, are proven to be accurate within a few centimetres, both inside warehouses and outdoors in yards.

This type of solution creates a virtual map to pinpoint workers and triggers a warning signal, which can be audible or visual, only if there is a genuine risk of collision. The technology can also pair operators and their forklifts, meaning that when the driver leaves their vehicle the system detects them as potentially at risk from other trucks, while their own truck does not trigger an alert as long as it remains stationary.

One of the most ingenious features of location aware technology is the facility to capture data and subsequently analyse it to develop strategic, company-wide safety improvements. The information can highlight particularly dangerous areas, allowing for remedial work, and can also be used to educate staff – both new and established – on how to cut risks, leading to a considerably safer environment for the entire workforce.

With workers concentrating on meeting their own performance targets, safety could easily become an afterthought in a busy warehouse or logistics centre. Nevertheless, the most important thing to remember is that almost all workplace accidents can be prevented with the use of the right systems and protocols. Implementing location aware technology, for instance, will enable a safe working environment, which, in turn, will enhance employee peace of mind, as well as improve efficiency and productivity throughout the operation.