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Distribution centers struggle to find balance

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Kiva Systems robots are doing the work of humans in warehouses across the country. The teams of robots scurry around warehouse floors, filling orders with technological efficiency.

While the robots are taking jobs away, said Ian Langella, chairman of the Department of Finance and Supply Chain Management at Shippensburg University, they also are safer options in the increasingly competitive warehouse/distribution world.

“In these warehouses, everything is managed,” Langella said. Computers “track how much time you spend on things and then it tracks how much time you should spend on things. People are basically incentivized to be as productive as possible.”

At least two area distribution centers use the Kiva technology: the Office Depot warehouse in Penn Township, Cumberland County, and the Staples warehouse in Chambersburg.

An Amazon distribution facility in South Middleton Township does not. Last week, an accident at the facility killed Jody Rhoads, 52. Cumberland County Coroner Charley Hall said the motorized pallet jack she was operating crashed into shelving.

The incident is under investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman released the following statement, but declined further comment: “Our thoughts and prayers go out to Jody’s family and loved ones. We are actively working with OSHA to investigate this tragedy.”

Speaking generally, Langella said using robots to fill orders does not work in all settings. Amazon, which purchased Kiva Systems for $775 million in 2012, ships a diverse plethora of goods.

“The more disparity logistically the things you have are, the more difficult it is to use that technology,” Langella explained. “Some of the technology decisions are taken out of your hands based on the products you have.”

 

Pressure to deliver

In the world of online shopping, immediacy is of great import. An online shipping giant, Amazon has gone as far as to adopt an “anticipatory shopping” strategy — shipping specific products to specific areas based on expected sales gleaned from big data.

That pressure to deliver goods as fast as possible led to massive logistics centers, many topping 1 million square feet, devoted to loading and unloading trucks 24/7.

While Kevin Kilp, area director for OSHA based in Harrisburg, could not comment on the Amazon fatality, he spoke of the general dangers associated with warehouse work.

According to OSHA statistics, forklifts are the leading cause of safety incidents that result in citations. The fatal injury rate for warehouse work is higher than the national average for all industries.

“There are certainly hazards present in these types of facilities, and they do their work in a quick and efficient manner,” Kilp said. “And the industry is certainly aware of this.”

According to the most recent data by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, transportation and material-moving occupations had the highest rate of days away from work due to injury — 258 days per 10,000 full-time workers in 2012. That figure is up from 251 days in 2011, and well above the overall private-sector rate of 102 days.

Transportation and warehousing accounted for 677 fatal work injuries in 2012, a decrease of 10 percent over the revised 2011 count (749 fatalities), the BLS reported.

Rhoads is not the first fatality at an Amazon facility. On Dec. 4, a worker was crushed after being caught between equipment at an Amazon fulfillment center in Avenel, N.J. In November, a similar fatality occurred at a warehouse in Reno, Nev.

 

Temporary workers

Amazon distributions facilities are known as “fulfillment centers,” Langella said, “which means they are taking a lot of small orders and sending them out to your house and my house.”

Those orders spike according to the season. As a result, more employees are needed around the holidays and at other peak times. To handle this, many companies fill their distribution centers with temp employees hired by outside agencies.

Using temp employees makes uniform training a challenge. Training is supposed to be updated every three years, Kilp said. OSHA conducts targeted inspection programs, he added, but most inspections come after complaints or accidents.

Distribution facilities are expected to remain a major employer in Central Pennsylvania, which offers access in every direction via interstates 81 and 83, as well as the Pennsylvania Turnpike. A 1.7-million-square-foot Proctor & Gamble facility is due to open in September outside Shippensburg with about 1,000 employees, most of them temp workers.

“The employer needs to work on the effectiveness of that training to make sure the operator is qualified,” Kilp said. “It’s important that they make sure the equipment is in good condition, and when repairs are necessary, the equipment is taken out of service.”

John Hilton

John Hilton

John Hilton covers Cumberland County, manufacturing, distribution, transportation and logistics. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at johnh@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JHilton32. Circle John Hilton on .

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