On Dec. 5, one of the facility’s collaborative picker robots punctured a 9-ounce aerosol can of bear repellent and sprayed concentrated capsaicin throughout the fulfillment center’s third floor. As a result, 24 workers were hospitalized, one of whom was sent to the intensive care unit. Another 30 employees were treated on-site for breathing problems.
An Amazon spokesperson said that the workers who were affected by the capsaicin leak were expected to be released from the hospital within 24 hours. The spokesperson also noted that the company had launched an investigation to determine what went wrong with the robot that caused the puncture. The Occupational Safety and Health Organization is also looking into the incident.
When the Solution Becomes the Problem
Ironically, the palletizing robot that caused the mass hospitalization was installed in part to improve worker safety. In recent years, Amazon has been the subject of widespread scrutiny regarding the conditions of its warehouses. Reports alleging that the company’s workers have to deal with low wages, punishing productivity goals, unventilated work areas and infrequent breaks have tarnished repetition of one of the world’s largest retailers.
To address the issue, Amazon began installing palletizing robots in its fulfillment centers in 2014. These robots were designed to complete repetitive tasks and travel long distances in place of human associates, thus making their work less physically demanding. But the Robbinsville incident is not the only one in which Amazon’s automatic machines have actually harmed human workers.
In 2015, a robot ran over a can of bear repellent in the company’s Haslet, Texas facility which resulted in the fire department being called. Those incidents and a notable rise in on-site fatalities at Amazon warehouses in the last few years has led to trade unions and labor advocacy groups arguing that the company needs to take employee well-being more seriously.
Adverse working conditions were also named as a key factor in motivating workers at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse to announce plans to unionize on Dec. 12.
Not All Bad News
Although Amazon is struggling with a raft of bad press at the moment, not all recent news about the company has been negative. The e-commerce giant recently announced plans to bring thousands of new jobs to Queens, New York and Arlington, Virginia by basing new headquarters in both cities.
To help its customers complete their last minute shopping, Amazon announced that it would extend its free holiday shipping through Dec. 18. And on the labor front, the company announced that it would be raising the minimum wage it pays its 350,000 regular and seasonal employees to $15 an hour.
If the corporation takes similarly meaningful steps to improve worker safety, it will likely be able to put the current fracas behind it in a few months.