According to recent reporting, Amazon warehouse employees are increasingly at risk of serious injury because of an unlikely source – the Amazon robots “working” beside them.
Use of Amazon Robots Expanding Rapidly
To help meet the demands imposed by its progressively faster delivery rates, Amazon has increasingly relied upon robotic “co-workers.” Known as “drives,” these Amazon robots are six-foot-tall roving motorized shelving units that move goods throughout the warehouses where the company’s online orders are fulfilled. Since 2014, when Amazon deployed approximately 15,000 drives, the degree of automation at the company’s delivery-fulfillment centers has grown exponentially. There are currently over 200,000 Amazon robots in warehouses across the United States, double the number that were in use last year.
Given Amazon’s dominance of the online retail sector, its rivals have been forced to adopt similar technological advances to keep up, with fast-moving pods, robotic arms, and other forms of warehouse automation becoming standard throughout the industry. Retailers insist that automation is necessary to increase productivity and reduce costs in order to meet consumer demands, and robots do not seem likely to replace human employees in the near future. However, critics note that keeping up with the pace of the latest technology is negatively impacting worker morale, health, and safety.
A Symphony of Burnout?
Beth Gutelius, an urban economic development scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago, argues that warehouses with robotics and artificial intelligence software have fostered “burnout” by increasing the workload of human employees and pressuring them to speed up their performance. As she detailed in a co-authored report published in 2019, Gutelius found that the new warehouse technology may be contributing to higher turnover rates, wage stagnation, and poorer quality work experiences thanks to the excessive monitoring and micromanagement of worker behavior.
This assessment stands in sharp contrast to claims made by Tye Brady, the chief technologist at Amazon Robotics. He insists that the Amazon robots provide a means to “extend human capability” by allowing employees to focus on their unique strengths, including problem-solving, common sense, and thinking on their feet.
“The efficiencies we gain from our associates and robotics working together harmoniously — what I like to call a symphony of humans and machines working together — allows us to pass along a lower cost to our customer,” said Brady.
Gutelius, however, found that this vision of “symphonic human-machine operations” is not working out in practice, claiming that “It sounds quite lovely, but I rarely hear from a worker’s perspective that that’s what it feels like.”
Injuries More than Double the National Average
Perhaps even more troubling than the harm to worker morale is the possible connection between the company’s growing reliance on Amazon robots and an increase in serious injuries at its warehouses.
In November 2019, Reveal published the results of an inquiry by The Center for Investigative Reporting. Drawing upon internal injury records from twenty-three of Amazon’s 110 fulfillment centers across the United States, the investigation found that the rate of serious injury at those facilities was more than double the national rate for the warehouse industry – 9.6 per 100 full-time Amazon workers in 2018, compared to the nationwide industry average that year of 4 per 100.
While many factors may play a role in these dismal safety results, the report uncovered a correlation between the widespread deployment of Amazon robots and worker injuries. Of the records obtained, Reveal found that most of the warehouses with the highest rates of injury used robotic technology.
One heavily automated facility in Kent, WA – once praised by company management as the “flagship of fulfillment” for being one of the few warehouses to ship a million packages in a day– logged a serious injury rate of 13 per 100 workers in 2018.
At another fulfillment center in Tracy, CA, the serious injury rate nearly quadrupled since deploying Amazon robots, going from 3.9 per 100 workers in 2015 to 11.3 in 2018.
A Troutdale, OR warehouse that opened with robotics in August 2018 had the highest serious injury rate uncovered in the report, with nearly 26 per 100 employees, more than six times the injury average.
Two former safety managers who spoke to the investigators argued that Amazon’s insistence on increased productivity has driven it to open new automated warehouses before they are ready, forcing management to skimp on training and begin operations without adequate safety teams in place.
Other employees claimed that the “efficiency” touted by advocates for the deployment of Amazon robots created conditions under which human beings could barely keep up, with pickers and packers expected to move more and more products each minute, thereby increasing the likelihood of injury.
“Before robots, it was still tough, but it was manageable,” said one worker. After Amazon robots, “we were in a fight we just can’t win.”
Chicago Workers’ Compensation Lawyers Fighting for You
No matter where they are employed, whether in a futuristic warehouse alongside Amazon robots or in the most basic setting imaginable, people who get hurt on the job in Illinois are often entitled to certain benefits under the state’s workers’ compensation laws.
With over $2 billion recovered for our clients and offices throughout the state, GWC Injury Lawyers LLC is one of the premier Workers’ Compensation and Personal Injury law firms in Illinois. For more than four decades, our dedicated attorneys have been helping employees and their families get the justice they deserve.
If you have been hurt performing the duties of your job, contact GWC today to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation with one of our Chicago workers’ compensation lawyers. You may call our office at (312) 464-1234 or click here to chat with a representative at any time.