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While COVID-19-Driven Online Sales Soar, Supply Chain Workers Suffer.

Here’s a Solution: AI-Enabled Safety for Forklifts


Looking at the recent sales results of major big box retailers and it’s pretty obvious to see the cataclysmic impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on consumer behavior and ultimately on America’s supply chain:

  • Tech giant Amazon’s first quarter sales soared to $75.5 billion, a 26% increase in revenue during the same period in 2019.
  • Target’s online sales jumped 141% from the previous year, thanks to roughly 5 million people shopping the company’s website for the first time between February and April.
  • Walmart’s online sales surged 74% from February through April, lifting overall sales by nearly nine percent.

The retailers responded to the unanticipated demand—the first quarter is traditionally retail’s slowest period of the year—in different ways. Amazon hurriedly injected an additional 175,000 workers into its fulfillment centers in an attempt to keep pace with demand. Target fulfilled online sales orders largely via in-store pickup. Walmart Fulfillment Services utilized its extensive network of warehouses and trucks to satisfy shoppers.

While investors and C-suiters may cheer the unexpected surge in sales, there have been serious consequences. Essential supply chain workers, the unseen thousands who stock, sort, pack and ship, are suffering from stress, exhaustion and overwork, placing them at higher risk of illness and workplace accidents.

In response to the explosion in demand, Amazon relaxed its aggressive delivery promise on the millions of orders it ships daily from 110 fulfillment centers across the country. Yet expectations for employees to meet quotas during the pandemic did not change. Already, workplace injury rates at Amazon are more than double the industry rate. In 2018, OSHA reported Amazon’s injury rate at 9.6 per 100 versus the industry number of four per 100. 

With the massive online sales increases at all of the major retailers and corresponding fear and COVID-19 concerns, it’s not surprising there would be a corresponding increase in workplace accidents. Study after study shows that stress, such as the type caused by the pandemic-fueled frenzy to keep supply chains moving, makes it difficult for workers to concentrate.

Stress and a lack of concentration is a deadly combination, particularly in a warehouse environment. According to industry statistics, there are roughly 96,000 forklift accidents a year, 36,000 of them serious and 100 of them deadly. The annual cost to industry is estimated to be $30 billion. This video shows ten common forklift accidents, including collisions with rack systems that bring down and destroy tens of thousands of dollars in product. 

This stuff happens during a “normal” day in a warehouse. Imagine the accident rate during the hyper-busy, hyper-stressed period we’re now in with shoppers doing the majority of their shopping online with the expectation of rapid delivery. With forklift drivers under intense pressure to move product quickly, it’s not a stretch to believe collisions and near misses are up dramatically.

So how do we keep our essential supply chain workers safe in the wake of COVID-19 and

the ongoing tension as the industry finds its footing?

SIERA.AI, an Austin-based tech startup, has a suggestion: Artificial Intelligence (AI)-enabled forklifts that sense and prevent forklift accidents before they happen while at the same time tracking and delivering invaluable, real-time performance data for analysis and driver support. 

The SIERA Safety System (S3) is a forklift collision prevention system made possible with some pretty nifty cloud-enabled AI technology. Company co-founder and CEO Saurav Agarwal likens it to having a virtual “co-pilot” working with the human forklift operator to keep him or her, other employees, product, and infrastructure accident-free. The data component adds a critical layer for management in gaining insight into behavior, accident-prone areas within a facility and how best to proceed.

“Humans, by nature, are accident prone. The purpose of S3 is to advance situational awareness using AI so no matter how distracted or stressed a forklift driver is, accidents are prevented. S3 literally stops the forklift from colliding with people, pallets, totes, and racks without driver intervention,” Agarwal explains. “The management component is equally important because data tells a story that’s not always apparent such as a floor layout or processes that unintentionally facilitate accidents.” He adds, “Given the COVID-19 environment and the need to keep essential workers safe physically and emotionally, this technology is more essential than ever.”

The beauty of S3 is the ease and low cost of implementation. Other than the software, there is no equipment to buy. Virtually any lift truck can be retrofitted with the S3 IoT device and operational within 45 minutes. Training for drivers is minimal. It’s as simple as turning the system on and going about regular tasks. Any potential accidents will be averted. See for yourself how S3 works here.

Onboarding for management is slightly more involved because of the extensive functionality. Driver behavior is tracked in real time and the data streamed to the cloud for analytics. If S3 senses erratic driving behavior—too fast for location-based speed limits for example—the driver is flagged and an alert sent. Driver specific data is aggregated and delivered in dashboards to management. Dynamic coaching can be turned on by management to automatically alert drivers of their behavior and give them alerts and feedback at the right time.

Driver-specific data is something management has never had before. The status quo is that a co-worker observes unsafe behavior and might report it to a supervisor. However, it’s more likely that unsafe behaviors aren’t reported and are generally accepted until it’s too late. With real data in front of them, management can step in to reinforce good driver behavior and coach those who need improvement. Because the coaching is based on data rather than hearsay, employees are more likely to respond positively rather than defensively.

Saurav Agarwal

CEO & Co-Founder, SIERA.AI

The ultimate goal of S3 is to keep everyone working in a warehouse or material-handling environment safe at all times, whether during a pandemic or seasonal surges. “I would definitely explain to people that S3 helps make you a better safer driver, keeps you from being hurt or hurting a co-worker, and also keeps one’s driving record clean. No one wants the fall-out of an accident,” Agarwal says. 

Since launching S3 in multiple warehouses, manufacturing plants, and meatpacking plants across the country in 2019, customers report a very positive trend among their forklift operators. They adapt to the technology immediately and become much more intentional about practicing safe driving behavior. Having the AI-powered “co-pilot” enables forklift drivers to drive with more awareness, confidence and ultimately, more error free.

“All it takes to get drivers onboard with S3 technology is for them to use it. The instantaneous stop when avoiding an accident gets people’s attention and changes future behavior,” Agrawal says. “It’s definitely a reality check for safety.”

A final, not to mention significant, benefit of S3 is the potential of significantly reducing liability costs. Insurance carriers will appreciate S3’s analytics and results. Fewer accidents as well as the system itself should bring premium costs down as claims and settlements become fewer and far between.

Let's keep our #essentialworkers safe

As the country begins its economic recovery, it’s impossible to know if the record-breaking surge in online sales and the supply chain disruption it caused will continue or if consumers will return to old habits of shopping in stores and dining at restaurants instead of preparing meals at home. Regardless, the need to keep people safe in essential supply chain jobs should be everyone’s top priority. To learn more about SIERA Safety System, visit our website.