Amid mounting evidence of unsafe working conditions at warehouses and fulfillment centers, Amazon is banking on new technology to save the day.
The e-commerce giant announced plans last week to invest $1 billion in companies developing supply chain-related robotics and technology solutions. The science fiction-sounding innovations include a "bi-pedal walking robot" for assisting workers on the floor, a "tactile robotic arm" designed to work alongside box packers, and "wearable safety technology" that provides real-time safety alerts to employees.
Alex Ceballos, vice president of worldwide corporate development at Amazon, said the investments were aimed at improving "employee experiences and safety," which is in line with the company's goal of cutting musculoskeletal injuries in half by 2025, and making Amazon, to quote founder Jeff Bezos, "the Earth's safest place to work."
At the moment, Amazon is still a long way off from meeting that goal. In 2021, the company's warehouse workers were injured at twice the rate of workers at non-Amazon warehouses, according to a new study based on OSHA data. Safety has also become one of the main sticking points between the company and a nascent labor movement that is seeking to unionize Amazon warehouses across the country.
While Amazon has insisted that better technology will address these employees' concerns, more robots don't always mean safer working conditions. Historically, robots have allowed workers to hand off some of the most dangerous, back-breaking jobs to automated machines, but they also introduce new hazards and challenges.
Specifically, researchers have found that robots can sometimes increase workloads for human laborers. According to a 2019 report from the UC Berkeley Labor Center, robots are often designed to ramp up speed and productivity, rather than reduce injuries.
"Our research suggests that even though some technologies could alleviate the most arduous tasks of warehouse work (such as heavy lifting), this likely will be coupled with attempts to increase the workload and pace of work, with new methods of monitoring workers," the report said.
This tracks with a common complaint from Amazon employees who have spoken out against working conditions at warehouses: that Amazon prioritizes speed over safety.
"I believe that the available evidence shows Amazon’s first priority is speed, without any significant attention to preventing the injuries that its robotic systems are already producing," said Eric Frumin, health and safety director for the Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition of labor unions, and co-author of a report on injuries at Amazon.
Amazon has stressed that these goals are not mutually exclusive. After the state of Washington's Department of Labor cited the company in 2021 for unsafe working conditions related to the pace of work, the company launched a $12 million initiative aimed at preventing musculoskeletal disorders through "innovative solutions."
What Amazon did not do was reform its controversial quota-based work system, in which workers must pick, pack, and stock a certain number of items per hour.
“Safety and performance targets can go hand-in-hand, that can continue to be the case,” said Heather MacDougall, vice president of worldwide health and safety at Amazon, during a news conference last year.
Keeping Up With Demand
Amazon's public commitments to address its safety issues were made against a backdrop of intense growth in e-commerce deliveries, which has compelled warehouse operators to employ robotics just to keep up with demand.
This explosion in logistics is bringing together manual laborers and machines at an unprecedented scale, introducing a number of new challenges around the best and safest way for humans and robots to collaborate.
Andrew S. Merryweather, associate professor at the University of Utah and an expert in ergonomics and workplace safety, told Cheddar that a balance between productivity and safety is possible, but precise guidelines for what that looks like are lacking.
"Speed is king in this business, but you can only work someone so hard and so fast before they break," he said. "That's where there is a lot of research being done in this space, but it's somewhat unknown what that balance looks like."
Warehouses are also uniquely difficult to automate and mechanize. Unlike factories, which often produce one type of product along an orderly assembly line, warehouses face constantly shifting volumes and types of goods. One day, they're stocking boxes of diapers, the next an at-home weight set.
When it comes to safety and robotics, another important distinction is between "collaborative" and "non-collaborative" robots. Collaborative robots require direct human interaction, whereas non-collaborative robots are mostly autonomous.
Warehouses mostly use non-collaborative machines, such as completely automated robots that stock and pick items from massive vertical shelving units. These kinds of robots essentially do their own thing, while humans work on the periphery, taking the items they pick and loading them into boxes.
Sean Petterson, CEO of StrongArm Technologies, which is focused on tracking injury data using wearables, said this is exactly the kind of task that companies would roboticize because it's easy to measure the return on investment.
"The way you pay for a robot is volume," he said. "That is the one metric. The faster it can move a package, the more valuable or the less costly that robot is on the business."
The Right Robots for the Job
The problem, Petterson explained, is that the human worker's role is now reduced to a much more limited set of movements. The worker is basically standing in one spot all day and making the same set of motions. They are also now trying to keep up with the machine, which must increase the total volume picked to justify its existence.
"That robot has demands that inherently a human can't keep up with, but a human becomes this flexible node that needs to adapt," he said.
This is what leads to the kind of musculoskeletal disorders that even Amazon admits are rampant at its warehouses. In his last shareholder letter as CEO, Jeff Bezos in 2021 said about 40 percent of work-related injuries at Amazon stemmed from musculoskeletal disorders.
Petterson said this approach to robotization stems from companies not properly accounting for the cost of injuries. Because these injuries are happening over long periods and are tabulated from an actuarial standpoint at the end of the year, it's hard to understand their costs in real-time, leading companies to write them off.
The economics then incentivise companies to roboticize based on productivity goals rather than safety because the cost benefits of better safety are unclear.
Petterson added that technology solutions, such as his company's wearable device, and better safety regulations around robots could push businesses to internalize these costs and start investing in robots that actually improve safety for workers.
"There is a need for robotics," he said. "It's just a matter of roboticizing the right things. There are certain jobs that humans should not be doing, like going into confined spaces, going into dangerous areas, or lifting things that are over 60 pounds."
Yet getting to a point where robots are seen as beneficial to workers again could take work. From labor's perspective, robotization and speed are currently synonymous, and breaking that link means first empowering workers to help make reforms.
"Robots can only replace part of the human roles in warehouses, and the hundreds of thousands of people still working there will still face these very high risks from dangerous jobs," said Frumin.
Updated on May 2, 2022, at 10:48 a.m. ET with a link to a referenced report from the Strategic Organizing Center.