Oct 7, 2020

Amazon automation could be making some warehouse jobs more dangerous

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The rate of serious injuries was more than 50% higher at warehouses with robots between 2016 and 2019.

Since Amazon first introduced robots into its warehouses six years ago, the company has seen staggering growth. And demand has only intensified during the pandemic as more people do their shopping online. But a new investigation by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting finds that growth may be coming at a heavy price to workers.

Injuries are on the rise, especially in facilities where robots are used, and at peak times, like around Prime Day. I spoke with Will Evans, a reporter for Reveal who led the investigation. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

A headshot of Will Evans, a reporter for Reveal.
Will Evans. (Photo courtesy of Reveal)

Will Evans: The robots make the warehouses much more efficient. So they carry these tall stacks of consumer products to the worker who stands at their station, and picks out the products that people order. And they can pick them much faster now. When workers had to pick while walking, they were held responsible for around 100 items per hour. Now, it’s up to 400 items per hour. So they’re going much faster, they’re doing much more repetitive — the same kind of repetitive motions over and over again, without a break for long shifts. They have their standard breaks, but when they’re on the clock, they’re held to production quotas that keep them going extremely fast, and their bodies are basically breaking down or they’re taking safety shortcuts and getting hurt.

Amy Scott: Now I understand that OSHA — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — stepped in, was concerned about this, and suggested some changes. How did the company respond?

Evans: Soon after the robots were introduced, OSHA found that this was an ergonomic hazard and recommended several changes, including recommending that workers rotate jobs throughout their shift and that Amazon give them an extra break. Amazon experimented with some job rotation, but it wasn’t implemented across their network.

Scott: Right now, people are still better at this job that Amazon calls “picking” at the warehouse — grabbing things, putting them in a basket or a bin and sending them on to be packed. But eventually, robots will probably keep getting better. I mean, do you see that as kind of where this is headed, that maybe the way that we address these safety issues is that the humans lose their jobs altogether and the robots do it?

Evans: That’s been consistently a worry from when the robots were introduced, and Amazon was quick to say, “Look, this is not replacing anybody. If anything, the robots bring more jobs.” And these robotic warehouses have a ton of people in them, I mean thousands of people, along with the robots. That’s still a concern and what is predicted. We’re on the road towards fully automated warehouses. We are not there yet, because the robots can’t do the things that humans do. And in the meantime, things will get more automated, but we’ve seen these technological advances have not made things easier or better for the workers. So in the meantime, you’re going to have more injuries. Amazon has tried to address some of its injury problems through technological fixes, and they have spent a lot of money on those things. But the safety efforts they’re making don’t address the workload that the workers have to keep up with.

Scott: Most of the injuries that your reporting focused on are related to repetitive stress. But with COVID-19, there’s a whole new health and safety risk going on inside warehouses. How has the company been responding to that?

Evans: That is a big deal, obviously, this year with a pandemic. And a lot of workers have complained about Amazon being too slow to protect them initially — not notifying them right away when COVID-19 hit their warehouses. Now, they do get notifications saying that a co-worker has gotten sick. But workers say that there is an inadequate paid sick leave. You can get that paid sick leave if you actually have COVID-19, but if you think you might be exposed and you haven’t been tested yet, or you’re waiting for results, if you take time off work you don’t get paid for that. So some workers were still coming into work when it would have been safer if they stayed home. Amazon has spent a lot of money on its COVID-19 safety measures and has implemented social distancing and requires face masks, and all that. They’ve also had a lot of cases of COVID-19. They’ve had several deaths from COVID-19 in their warehouses. Amazon says that the rate of COVID-19 is less than the general population. But what you’re seeing is a combination of these things. Some workers, for example, tell me that things that are too heavy to lift by themselves that they would normally try to get someone to lift with them, now they can’t do that because of social distancing. So they may lift that by themselves and get hurt. It’s a confluence of different factors, and we don’t know exactly how the injury rates are faring right now, but we know that it’s a time of high demand. And Prime Day is coming up and the holidays are coming up, and we know that those are the times where you see you injuries go up as well.

Scott: Where do you think the customer fits into all of this? I mean, the company prides itself on being “customer obsessed,” which, of course, is what leads to these higher and higher quotas for production. Do we need to take a look at our habits and how we interact with this company?

Evans: I think that’s a really good question. I mean, Amazon is so focused on delighting the customers. We’ve come to expect that we order something and we get it the next day, or the day of. But in order to do that, there’s a ton of workers who are putting themselves at risk, going faster and faster and having really intense demands put on them. Yeah, I mean, it is a question for consumers: What are the costs that we’re willing to accept to get that level of speedy delivery and vast selection at our fingertips?

Autonomous robots move towers of goods, called pods, around an Amazon fulfillment center in Edison, New Jersey, in August 2019. (Stephanie Hughes/Marketplace)

Related links: More insight from Amy Scott

Amazon declined to give an interview to Reveal. Instead, the company emailed a statement, saying it’s invested more than $1 billion in safety measures so far this year, partly due to COVID-19. And that “nothing is more important than the health and safety of our teams.”

The full Reveal story is well worth a read. Evans reported that to try to bring down injuries, at least one warehouse offered pizza parties for a string of incident-free shifts. But one employee described the parties as “rewards for not reporting injuries” — because really, who wants to be the one that gets hurt and deprives co-workers of free pizza?

NBC News also has a new report out on Amazon warehouse workers and the challenge of finding out exactly how many workers have contracted the coronavirus on the job. The company says it reports all cases to local health departments, but doesn’t announce how many people at each facility have become sick to avoid creating “unnecessary fear.” 

OSHA, the federal agency that governs workplace safety, requires companies to report work-related illnesses, but it can be hard to tell if someone got infected at work or somewhere else, so some Amazon workers are trying to collect the data themselves. They’re reaching out to others through Facebook groups and tracking positive cases in a spreadsheet. Amazon last week did say nearly 20,000 of its workers have contracted COVID-19 and previously confirmed at least 10 have died. The virus will continue to be a challenge, as the company seeks to hire thousands more workers to keep up with demand. And people desperate for money may find it hard to turn down work no matter the conditions.

Finally, late yesterday Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee released a report calling for antitrust reforms to curb what they see as the monopoly power of Amazon, as well as Apple, Facebook and Google. The report likened the four tech giants to 19th-century oil barons and railroad tycoons, saying their market dominance has led to “less innovation, fewer choices for consumers, and a weakened democracy.”

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer