Supply Chain Council of European Union |

Commentary: Can technology alleviate ecommerce injuries?

On November 25, The Atlantic published Ruthless Quotas at Amazon Are Maiming Employees, an article by Will Evans. It’s a detailed investigation and analysis based on “internal injury records from 23 of the company’s 110 fulfillment centers nationwide.”

Evans’ article got me thinking about how our unceasing appetite for ecommerce affects people who do manual labor at ecommerce companies. Additionally, this is a topic of relevance in any industrial supply chains where employees do any kind of manual labor.

What is the scope of the problem?

According to the National Safety Council (NSC): “The total cost of work injuries in 2017 was $161.5 billion. This figure includes wage and productivity losses of $50.7 billion, medical expenses of $34.3 billion and administrative expenses of $52.0 billion. This total also includes employers’ uninsured costs of $12.4 billion, including the value of time lost by workers other than those with disabling injuries who are directly or indirectly involved in injuries, and the cost of time required to investigate injuries, write up injury reports and so forth. The total also includes damage to motor vehicles in work-related injuries of $4.9 billion and fire losses of $7.3 billion.”

The image below is a summary of the data from the NSC.

Furthermore, according to the NSC, 104 million days were lost in 2017 as a result of injuries. That number includes 70 million days lost due to injuries that occurred in 2017. The remaining 34 million days lost in 2017 arose from permanently disabling injuries that occurred in previous years. The NSC “estimates 55 million additional days will be lost in future years due to on-the-job deaths and permanently disabling injuries that occurred in 2017.”

The image below is a summary of the time lost data from the NSC.

To gain additional perspective on this problem, I consulted Boston, Massachusetts-based Liberty Mutual’s Workplace Safety Index, which “documents the top 10 causes of the most serious workplace injuries – those causing an employee to miss five or more days from work – and ranks them by their direct cost to employers, which consists of medical and lost-wage payments.”

The following table from Liberty Mutual’s Workplace Safety Index 2019 summarizes the top five non-fatal injuries requiring more than five days absence from work by industry.

The following table from Liberty Mutual’s Workplace Safety Index 2019 summarizes the top 10 most costly causes of injuries as well as their estimated costs to U.S. businesses.

Finally, the following table from Liberty Mutual’s Workplace Safety Index 2019 summarizes the direct costs of non-fatal injuries requiring more than five days’ absence from work for eight major industry sectors.

Given this context, there’s an attention-grabbing line in Evans’ article: “The logs Reveal obtained are scattered with lacerations and concussions and fractures, but most of the injuries are labeled as sprains and strains. The pain from these injuries can be debilitating. About a third of the injured workers had to take off more than a month to recover.”

Furthermore, according to the International Labor Organization, “some 2.3 million women and men around the world succumb to work-related accidents or diseases every year; this corresponds to over 6,000 deaths every single day. Worldwide, there are around 340 million occupational accidents and 160 million victims of work-related illnesses annually.”

What approach are tech startups taking to solve this problem?

A survey of the approaches that startups are taking to solve the problem of worker safety within industrial settings shows that such startups are creating innovations that rely on a combination and interweaving of several computing technologies spanning software and hardware.

Ideal products within this category should be able to offset the cost of implementing them by offsetting the direct and indirect financial costs arising from worker injury. Typically, such products come in the form of a wearable device, and they promise to:

●     Gather data and other information that the device can use to alert workers about dangerous conditions in the immediate vicinity – such solutions require two-way communication between employees’ devices, machinery and equipment in order to monitor environmental conditions and prevent accidents from occurring.

●     Gather data that can be used to provide nudges to employees in real time about potentially dangerous behavior, prompting individual employees to modify their behavior in order to prevent injury.

●     Provide an analysis suite that automatically aggregates and summarizes data to make it easy for safety and operations managers to monitor the workplace. Some of the systems provide predictive analytics that can be used to take preventive measures.

This October 2019 analysis by Startus Insights identified as many as 52 and highlighted five startups that have developed products for industrial worker safety. This January 2019 analysis by Andrew Thomson and published in EHS Today identifies four startups also building products for industrial worker safety.

Relieving physical stress of warehouse workers through ergoskeletons that share loads (Photo: FM Logistic)
Relieving physical stress of warehouse workers through ergoskeletons that share loads (Photo credit: FM Logistic)

Insights from the field

Coincidentally, I was in the process of arranging to catch up with my friend Haytham Elhawary, cofounder and CEO of New York City-based Kinetic, an early-stage startup building hardware and software infrastructure for a connected workforce, when the Evans article was published.

Kinetic’s first product is focused on using a wearable device to reduce workplace injuries among people like those described in The Atlantic article. I have known Haytham since September 2013. I asked him about the problem of worker safety and what he and his cofounder, Aditya Bansal, have learned since launching Kinetic in October 2014.

IKEA’s newst distibution center in Kleinburg, Ontario, serve’s Toronto’s northern suburbs. (Photo credit: IKEA Canada)

During my conversation with Haytham he told me about some amazing results Kinetic’s first product, the REFLEX, has produced in the field:

●     A 43% reduction in worker’s compensation claims across customer sites with the REFLEX, for Amerisure.

●     A 60% reduction in worker injury rates in a study conducted in collaboration with AIG.

He told me about a study Kinetic performed with Iron Mountain that had equally amazing results, smiling proudly as he described how injury rates were reduced by 58% within a year. He also showed me a return on investment summary for one of the studies I have mentioned above that showed that the REFLEX produced a greater than 6.8x return over a four-month period.

When Kinetic was raising its seed round it did not yet have this data, and investors worried about the efficacy of the product. I asked Haytham why he and his co-founder believe the REFLEX works so well: “For the device to be successful at changing the way industrial workers move, we had to create an entire experience around safety. The device not only vibrates when you perform a high-risk motion, it counts how often you do those motions and ranks you against your colleagues. Safety can often be presented in very boring ways, but by making it into a game, workers are competing to be the safest, which has led to lower injuries and more camaraderie. It empowers workers to take their safety into their own hands.”

As the volume of business-to-consumer and business-to-business ecommerce grows around the world, news articles about worker safety will become more common. Given the scale of the problem, I am hoping startups like Kinetic succeed.

As you unpack gifts over the holidays, remember the people in the supply chain who are working hard to ensure that your orders arrive, undamaged and on time. Startups like Kinetic exist to help protect those people from unnecessary injury.

If you are a team working on innovations that you believe have the potential to improve worker safety in areas that require intensive manual labor in the supply chain, we’d love to tell your story in FreightWaves. I am easy to reach on LinkedIn and Twitter. Alternatively, you can reach out to any member of the editorial team at FreightWaves at [email protected]

Author’s Disclosure: REFASHIOND Ventures may pursue an investment in some of the startups mentioned in this article, in collaboration with Greenhawk Capital.

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