Amazon’s ‘safe’ new robot won’t solve the workplace accident problem

The introduction of Proteus comes 10 years after Amazon’s acquisition of Kiva Systems, which became Amazon Robotics. Kiva robots carry up to £1,000 worth of customer orders from storage to human pickers, but operate in an area of ​​the warehouse that humans can’t reach.

Eric Frumin, health and safety director of the Strategic Organizing Center, says Amazon’s promotion of a new robot that prevents people from bumping into humans is a distraction from the primary causes of injuries at its facilities.

“Amazon has a fantastic ability to create new and more glamorous hazards for employees,” says Frumin. “Maybe this robot will pose a new threat to employees, but I’m more concerned about the company’s complete blindness to the dangers they are aware of.” He says those dangers include requiring workers to perform fast and repetitive movements that cause injuries: for example, when loading trucks from floor to ceiling or when using manual pallet jacks.

Frumin co-authored the Strategic Organizing Center’s analysis of Amazon filings with OSHA, which was released in April. It found that since 2017, the company’s only annual decline in the company’s work-related accident rates occurred in 2020, when it temporarily cut labor quotas due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The injury rate then rose 20 percent in 2021, the report found. It also found that although Amazon employs one in three warehouse workers in the United States, half of all warehouse worker injuries occurred in facilities operated by the company. About 90 percent of Amazon injuries were severe enough for people to miss work or be unable to do their regular jobs.

In March this year, after inspections of Amazon warehouses in the company’s home state of Washington, state regulators fined the company $60,000 for “deliberate, serious violation” of safety rules that could lead to injuries to the company’s hands. lower back and upper limbs.

Proteus was introduced at Amazon’s re: MARS conference last month alongside other technology the company claims will improve safety for warehouse workers. A camera system called AR ID can automatically identify packages without employees having to hold a barcode scanner. A robot called Cardinal picks up packages up to 50 pounds, and another, formerly known as Ernie, places items in containers for storage, a task performed by people who repeatedly have to climb stairs to place items in tall carts.

Debbie Berkowitz, a senior policy advisor and chief of staff at OSHA during the Obama administration, says Amazon significantly expanded the use of robots in its warehouses during the Trump administration, when federal officials failed to respond to reports of high injury rates. “Essentially, no one was watching this happen,” said Berkowitz, who worked as a safety director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union in the 1980s and 1990s, negotiating with companies that operate supermarket warehouses.

“Ultimately, I think the robots will only make it better for consumers and worse for employees, who will work harder and faster,” Berkowitz said. She believes Amazon failed to take into account natural variability in human body size early in its expansion, leading to higher rates of musculoskeletal injuries from workers using highly repetitive but vigorous movements.

Amazon’s Brady told WIRED that the company is looking for opportunities to reduce repetitive tasks and heavy lifting to reduce musculoskeletal injuries. “Every time there’s an incident,” he says, “we look very closely at it and ask ourselves, ‘How can we improve the system so that this doesn’t happen again?'” Last month Amazon promised to reduce the risk of the musculoskeletal injuries and 25 percent by 2025.

Berkowitz says that if Amazon gave its control over worker safety in its warehouses, it would hire ergonomics experts to visit each Amazon fulfillment center and meet with employees, review injury logs, find out which jobs have the highest pain reports, and start by considering design changes to better protect those workers. “They could really be a leader here.”