IoT sensors improve workplace safety for warehouse employees

DHL Supply Chain, the contract logistics specialist within the Deutsche Post DHL Group, recently completed a pilot project at the DHL Advanced Regional Center in Singapore to create a safer warehouse environment using Internet of Things (IoT) technology. Data from wearable wireless sensors were used to prevent accidents by monitoring employee fatigue levels, suggesting rest periods, and sending alerts when people were in close proximity to moving equipment – all in real time.

In 2016, Singapore had over 2,000 incidents of workers being struck by moving vehicles in their workplace. The Ministry of Manpower Singapore has identified onsite vehicular safety as one of the top three priority areas for improving workplace safety and health this year. With the regular movement of forklifts, belts and other materials handling equipment (MHE) in warehouse operations, incidents involving MHE consistently rank among the top safety-related incidents that occur in DHL warehouses every day.

“At DHL, safety is our number one priority and there is a strong commitment to the health and safety of our employees at all levels of the organization. So when we were exploring the use of wearable sensors and how we can leverage the technology for our operations, we naturally chose to focus this pilot project around warehouse safety,” said Steve Walker, Chief Information Officer Asia Pacific and Global Warehouse Management System Centre of Excellence, DHL Supply Chain.

DHL has been at the forefront in testing the use of IoT in its warehouses since 2015 with various partners. It is currently implementing the technology with Cisco and start-up Conduce in Germany, the Netherlands and Poland to monitor operational activities in real-time with heat maps and other visualization tools to optimize operational efficiency and improve employee safety. DHL is also partnering IBM and Huawei on various IoT innovations across the supply chain.

Protection and prevention

By providing alerts to equipment operators, the IoT solution in the Singapore pilot helps identify hazardous situations before they happen. The wearable sensors and data transmitters track employee movement around the warehouse, displaying the distance and number of people in a given work area. The solution scans for signals from employees via a wearable tag, and when this signal is close to a forklift, the driver is informed that someone is close to his or her work area. An audio notification, alongside a vibration alert, is sent to a tag worn on the driver’s wrist, so that the warning is noticed even in noisy surroundings.

What’s more, the wrist sensor measures symptoms of fatigue throughout the day by measuring the operator’s heart rate. The supervisor is automatically notified when an operator’s heart rate falls below normal levels and will recommend a break, as a drop in heart rate indicates tiredness and potential lack of concentration. “This is clearly a breakthrough that could prove crucial for preventing accidents,” adds Walker. The solution also generates heat maps that indicate busy and high-risk areas. Supervisors can then use the maps to evaluate particularly busy areas and review traffic flows to take measures to mitigate the situation.

“This pilot project greatly supports the team’s efforts on enhancing warehouse health, safety and awareness,” says Cha Wei Hung, a DHL Senior Logistics Assistant and warehouse employee who was involved in the project.

The IoT solution can be easily adapted to various industry scenarios, such as truck driver fatigue; slips, trips and falls; repetitive task fatigue and cold chain temperature exposure. The solution can also send location information and alert supervisors or health and safety offices when the worker is in danger or presses a panic button for assistance. “We have learned a huge amount about IoT from this pilot project,” says Walker. “Now we are evaluating how we can roll out this solution in Asia Pacific and leverage it to add further value for our customers and the business.”