The robots are here to help, they say. They’ll make our lives easier, they say. Yeah, we’ve heard that one before. (Enter: the robot uprising).
An extensive report from Reveal (published in The Atlantic) details new information about workplace injuries in Amazon fulfillment warehouses. According to the records it obtained, the amount of “serious” injuries suffered by Amazon workers, defined as those that require workers to take time off or restrict job functions, is twice that of the warehouse industry standard: 9.6 injuries per 100 workers vs. the warehouse workplace standard of four per 100.
But that’s not all: These stats worsen significantly in warehouses where Amazon has introduced robots designed to increase efficiency, and even safety. For example, robots are used to bring shelves of products to workers so that they don’t have to walk miles and miles throughout their workday. Robots also send products down conveyer belts so workers can easily retrieve items for order.
But, instead of making employees’ workplaces safer, data indicates that they could be having the opposite effect. Reveal says that of the 23 warehouses from which it obtained records (there are 110 facilities total in the U.S.), “most” of the ones with the highest injury levels used robots:
A Kent, Washington facility that utilizes robots had 292 serious injuries in one year —that’s 13 serious injuries per 100 workers.
The serious injury rate of a Tracy, CA warehouse “nearly quadrupled” after it introduced robots five years ago, going from “2.9 per 100 workers in 2015 to 11.3 in 2018.”
A factory with robotics in Troutdale, Oregon that opened in 2018 had the highest injury rate of all: 26 serious injuries per 100 workers.
Amazon says that its workplace injury numbers are high because it wants to be diligent about reporting injuries, and not dissuade employees from missing work.
“We would rather over-report and lead in this space for our associates’ safety than optimize for optics,” a spokesperson told Reveal.
Warehouse employees told Reveal that the robots not only make it more difficult for workers to keep pace, but that they increase productivity expectations to even higher levels. Overall, productivity quotas — juiced by robotics — cause workers to neglect their safety in order to keep up.
Of course, these high workplace injury rates do not prove that the robots cause the injuries — it only shows a correlation between the two. It also does not say whether the warehouses with the lowest injury rates do or do not use robots. However, the apparent connection jibes with previous reports and anecdotal evidence that show a link between automation, unforgiving quotas, and worker injuries.
For Prime Members, two-day shipping might be free, but the cost to human lives is high.
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