Amazon hasn’t hesitated to add robotic helpers to its warehouses in recent years. It claimed that they not only boost efficiency but that they would also help keep workers safer. Unfortunately, internal records obtained by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting show that the opposite is true.
Amazon’s warehouses have actually seen a rise in injuries since the e-commerce giant started getting robots involved. Part of the issue relates to the fact that robots are simply too efficient for their human counterparts to keep up. This leads to overuse injuries for employees who must stand for 10 or more hours per day while performing repetitive motions.
Another part of the problem can be pinned on Amazon itself for failing to safely manage its warehouse conditions.
The Robots Are Too Good
At the end of 2014, Amazon unveiled its first robot-enhanced warehouse in Tracy, California. It is now one of many facilities around the world that uses robots to find the items ordered by millions of people online every day.
During the reveal, Amazon operations chief Dave Clark said “It’s better for everybody.”
At first, workers thought it would be a positive change. So-called “pickers” in the warehouse were walking several miles each day just to find products before the robots arrived. Sadly, the convenience would come at a steep cost.
As robots started decreasing the amount of time it took to process each order, Amazon increased the quotas of its human employees. Instead of finding and scanning 100 items per hour, workers were expected to zip through 400. That’s because robots bring the items to a workstation where employees stand for hours at a time instead of walking through the warehouse.
Unsurprisingly, this takes a toll on the body. Kathleen Fagan, a physician who worked with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to inspect Amazon’s warehouses, says, “If you’ve got robots that are moving product faster and workers have to then lift or move those products faster, there’ll be increased injuries.”
Studies have shown that manufacturing workers can experience exhaustion, increased stress, and more injuries when the muscles aren’t allowed to rest during extended periods of repetitive movement.
Reveal notes that more than 14,000 serious injuries were reported at Amazon fulfillment centers last year alone. The criteria for a “serious injury” is one that requires the employee to take time off or have restrictions placed on their job. Last year’s figure is equivalent to a rate of 7.7 injuries per 100 employees. It’s also 33 percent higher than Amazon’s own number in 2016 and nearly twice as high as the industry standard.
Obviously, there is a problem. Though robots are a contributing factor, they aren’t solely to blame.
As if Amazon warehouse workers weren’t already busy enough, the e-commerce giant decided to revolutionize online shopping by creating a new annual sale that rivals Black Friday—Prime Day. The event heightened the pressure already on warehouses because of the holiday season to new levels.
Although Amazon claims that its injury rates remain flat or even decrease during Prime Day and the holidays, reports show the opposite to be true. In fact, internal data from Amazon shows that injury rates spike during Prime Day and Cyber Monday. That shouldn’t be surprising.
Reveal notes that those two weeks accounted for the greatest number of serious injuries last year. More than 400 of them were reported during 2019’s Prime Day event alone. Unsurprisingly, it was also the busiest week in Amazon’s history.
To the public, Amazon claimed that it was following OSHA recommendations to keep workers safe. That includes things like rotating jobs and offering more breaks. Unfortunately, profit took precedence in Amazon’s warehouses.
A report from Amazon’s safety team in August 2019 says, “Despite the considerable benefits, half of the pilot sites decided to turn off sort rotation during Prime Week.”
In other words, during the busiest time of year, Amazon decided to temporarily halt programs meant to protect workers. At the cost of worker safety, Amazon has ballooned from a $150 billion company to a $1 trillion conglomerate. Its CEO Jeff Bezos has also become the richest person in the world by a comfortable margin. Even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bezos and Amazon each added billions to their respective worth.
This isn’t the first time Amazon has come under fire for its warehouse practices. In fact, Reveal released an investigation last November detailing the same issue. Meanwhile, both federal legislators and OSHA have challenged the company on the way it manages its warehouse workers.
All the way back in 2016, OSHA said, “The company exposed employees to ergonomic risk factors including stress from repeated bending at the waist and repeated exertions, and standing during entire shifts up to 10 hours, four days a week and sometimes including mandatory overtime shifts.”
These issues are clearly still causing problems today.
In February, a group of 15 U.S. senators called on CEO Jeff Bezos to implement a series of changes at its warehouses. The open letter reads, “These reports make clear that by placing such a priority on speed and quota fulfillment, your company requires employees to risk their safety and health to perform and keep their jobs.”
In response, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, Brian Huseman, said, “In 2016, we decided to change our approach to recordkeeping and design a system that reported all injuries – no matter the severity.”
Given the numbers put forth in Reveal’s report, that seems to be yet another cover-up from Amazon.
With COVID-19 still raging, repetitive motion isn’t the only thing that workers have to worry about. Eight Amazon employees have already died from the virus. Meanwhile, the company refuses to say how many of its workers have tested positive or reveal if more have died.
Those interested in seeing the week-by-week numbers can visit Reveal’s site. It provides info on 150 Amazon warehouses from 2016 to 2019 that is pulled from the company’s internal records.
Although it doesn’t seem like it, there is a clear path forward. Decreasing worker quotas is a surefire way to cut back on injuries—because that’s what started increasing them in the first place. Whether this is accomplished by hiring more human workers or designing better robots doesn’t matter. However, Amazon must be held accountable for its actions and start providing better working conditions for its employees.