Amazon says new robots will improve safety. Critics aren’t so sure.

The e-commerce giant says its new robotic system will reduce injuries, but some argue that robots have so far only made things worse.
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As Amazon faces increasing scrutiny for its workplace safety record, the e-commerce giant is testing out two new robotics systems that it says will help speed up warehouse operations and reduce employee injuries at the same time.

One new system, called Sequoia, integrates robotic arms and mobile platforms to completely overhaul how warehouses receive, containerize, and ultimately process inventory for customer orders. The safety improvements, according to Amazon, will stem from a new more ergonomic workstation that allows employees “to do all their work in their power zone, between mid-thigh and mid-chest height,” Scott Dresser, vice president of Amazon Robotics, wrote in a blog post.

“With this system, employees will no longer have to regularly reach above their heads or squat down to pick customer orders, supporting our efforts to reduce the risk of injuries,” Dresser said.

The comment acknowledges that Amazon warehouse employees may currently be expected to reach and squat outside their power zone, which can put them at risk of repetitive stress injuries and can lead to work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as sprains and lower-back injuries. The company noted in its 2022 safety report that 55% of recordable injuries at Amazon were caused by work-related MSDs.

Automating safety: Dresser wrote that all recordable injuries and incidents that resulted in time away from work dropped 15% and 18% respectively in 2022 at robotic sites compared to non-robotic sites, adding that “Sequoia will help continue this positive trend.”

A report from the union-backed Strategic Organizing Center (SOC), released earlier this year, found that in 2022 there were 6.6 serious injuries for every 100 Amazon workers, compared to 3.2 serious injuries for every 100 workers at non-Amazon warehouses—and previously found that injury rates were higher at robotic warehouses than non-robotic warehouses.

Maureen Lynch Vogel, principal of global safety PR for Amazon, refuted both claims. The methodology used to come up with the injury rates was “based on incomplete data,” because the calculation did not include large companies with a similar operational footprint that use different reporting codes, she told Retail Brew via email.

  • SOC responded to these claims in an email: “The simple fact is that, using the industry coding that Amazon itself chooses for its own reports to the US Labor Department’s OSHA and BLS divisions, Amazon accounts for one-third of all the workers in the warehouse industry, and half of all the serious injuries.”

However, other sources have also found problems. A national survey of 1,484 frontline Amazon warehouse workers from the University of Illinois Chicago’s Center for Urban Economic Development conducted in 2023 found that 41% of workers reported being injured on the job.

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The report also noted that “Amazon’s industry-leading use of robotics, algorithmic management, and monitoring appear to be implemented in ways that not only fail to alleviate injuries common to the industry, but increase pain, injury, and mental health issues among its workforce."

State and federal agencies are increasingly pursuing actions against Amazon over safety conditions:

  • Earlier this year, the US Department of Labor fined Amazon $60,269 for allegedly exposing workers to unsafe conditions at warehouses in Florida, Illinois, and New York.
  • Amazon is also facing $85,800 in fines from the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries for similar violations.

Betting on tech: Amazon has denied these claims and is even suing the Washington agency over its fines, but still appears to be betting that new technology will “support workplace safety.”

Last year, the company launched its Amazon Industrial Innovation Fund (AIIF) with the goal of investing $1 billion in tech solutions designed to both increase delivery speed and “employee experience.”

  • One such project is Agility Robotics’s bipedal robot, Digit, which Amazon said could potentially handle the highly repetitive process of picking up and moving totes.

Eric Frumin, director of health and safety at the Strategic Organizing Center, told Retail Brew that Amazon has similarly framed its 2012 acquisition of robotics company Kiva as a step toward improved safety. “Their Kiva robots were supposed to be the thing that was going to relieve workers of having to walk around and stock and pick all these hundreds of thousands of items,” he said.

Even if Sequoia does offer an improvement, he noted that the lack of a timeline for when workers will see the benefits of a more ergonomic workstation makes him skeptical of Amazon’s claims that it will meaningfully improve safety.

In response to these concerns, Lynch Vogel told Retail Brew that the company doesn’t roll out technology until it’s been properly tested. While Sequoia right now is only operational at a fulfillment center in Houston, there are plans to “roll it out to more sites next year,” she said.

As for the system’s impact on safety, she said, “While we won’t speculate on the precise results, we have high confidence that Sequoia will reduce injuries and create more meaningful work for employees, as it will free them up to do different tasks.”

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