Coronavirus: How a WMS helps social distancing in the warehouse

Coronavirus: How a WMS helps social distancing in the warehouse

01 April 2020

  • hand washing for coronavirus hygiene


Without supply chain key workers - warehouse managers and warehouse operatives, delivery drivers and retail workers - life in the midst of the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic would pretty much grind to a halt for consumers. Many governments are recommending that people place online orders for their shopping wherever possible and this is creating unprecedented demand. At the last check, I was 164,029th in the queue waiting to enter one of the UK’s leading supermarkets to complete an online shop and ultimately had to give up. Even Amazon, with one of the most sophisticated and automated fulfilment operations on Earth is having to prioritise orders and hire in over 100,000 more operatives to cope.

Can warehouse operatives practice social distancing?

Yet as the majority of people are being asked to work from home and practice social distancing, what are warehouse workers supposed to do? They still have to go onsite every day to ensure we get the essential products we need to survive. How can they stay safe at work and avoid getting too close to their colleagues who might also be picking from the same locations? 

It is clearly a big issue, with some major retailers either closing their operations or having to address the concerns of workers worried about social distancing safety. Apart from closing up altogether or spraying the warehouse with alcohol-based agents to try and destroy the Coronavirus, what other options are there? Firstly, all operatives should be wearing disposable gloves as a minimum, since it is known that the virus can survive on surfaces for extended periods. Technology can also help, by supporting the introduction of flexible picking strategies and minimising the level of contact required to process orders.

Warehouses with a warehouse management system (WMS) are in a very good position to support effective social distancing measures and to help keep warehouse operatives as safe as possible during the Coronavirus outbreak.  One strategy that a warehouse using a WMS can adopt is to introduce zone picking.

WMS supported pick strategies for safe working during COVID-19

Zone picking keeps operatives safer because it introduces a set structure to the areas where a particular person can work. Rather than having an operative travel across the whole warehouse to pick their orders, they are assigned to work within certain locations only. If an operative stays in a confined area, they automatically practice social distancing and remain efficient – more efficient even than they might usually, because the time spent traveling between picks is kept to a minimum.

Then, once orders are picked from their designated locations, they can be transferred to a central marshalling area for consolidation. By organising operatives to be well spaced along a marshalling line, or expanding the number of marshalling areas, warehouse management can maintain or even exceed the 2 metre guidelines of the social distancing rules. Here the stock items picked can be sorted into individual orders and sent off for dispatch.  

Voice picking improves worker safety during Coronavirus crisis

Other technologies that integrate with an existing WMS can support even safer warehouse working and help provide the greater throughput efficiency needed for increased consumer demand. Voice picking allows warehouse operatives to pick stock hands free within a designated zone, minimising the contact between picks whilst at the same time, reducing the time to pick orders. In most warehouses using voice technology, it is standard best practice for operatives to be issued their own personal headset but share the processing device. This again improves the safety for workers as processors can be sanitised in between shifts and there is no risk of equipment spreading the Coronavirus. When fulfilling bulk orders, process safety becomes even tighter as palletised stock can be transported by FLT and requires no direct handling.

It is ironic that perhaps the more sophisticated the warehouse and the more automation that has been employed, the more difficult it can be for warehouse management to implement social distancing policies in particular when using a sophisticated Goods to Person picking methodology. By making some adjustments to pick faces and assigning operatives to cover set locations, even warehouses that have yet to implement a warehouse management system can ensure their workers can stay as safe as possible during the COVID-19 crisis.



Eric Carter

Solutions Architect at Indigo Software