Amazon Uses Automation to Hide a Disastrous Record of Workplace Injuries

 


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or the last decade, Amazon has been on an automation spree. The retail behemoth is mechanizing its warehouses, buying up robotics companies, and transforming its facilities into a state-of-the-art, semi-automated distribution centers. The goal is clear enough: to move, sort, and ship products to customers as fast as inhumanly possible — to vastly improve operational efficiency. This is always the aim when companies adopt industrial automation, of course, but it comes with a downside: People tend to get worried about the robots.

Since long before the term “robot” was even coined, workers have been justifiably concerned that machines would pose a danger to them, whether to their livelihoods or their bodies. So companies tend to try to preempt both concerns by invoking a version of what’s become something of an industry-standard response: Robots and automation will do the so-called “3D jobs” — dull, dirty, and dangerous work that humans shouldn’t want to do anyway. (These have traditionally been jobs taken on by the working class, and were often historically union gigs.)

As such, companies doing the automating usually try to emphasize how much safer robots will make the workplace over how much they’re helping to ramp up production or to benefit its bottom line. This is neatly encapsulated in a CNN Business op-ed by the CEO of Boston Dynamics titled “Robots won’t take away our jobs. They will make work safer and more efficient.”

The carnage was the worst at facilities where Amazon had undertaken automation.

Amazon is making precisely the same case. Last year, its chief executive, Jeff Wilke, appeared on PBS’s Frontline to address working conditions at the company’s warehouses. Since 2012, he said, Amazon had added 200,000 robots to its fulfillment centers. “They make the job safer,” he said, for Amazon’s human workers, 300,000 of which had been added to the company’s ranks in the same time period. The approach is a fairly effective means of winning positive media attention — stories abound about how effectively “humans and robots work side-by-side” in Amazon fulfillment centers. Also in 2012, the Atlantic remarked that Amazon’s robots were making its warehouses “more humane.”

Alas, they do not. A new report from Reveal and the Center of Investigative Journalism has shown, definitively, that as robotization has been scaled up at Amazon distribution centers, so have injuries — to a disastrous degree. Workplace injuries across Amazon’s entire operation are unacceptably high: Nearly eight out of every 100 Amazon workers were seriously injured on the job last year, according to the company’s own internal records. That is, per Reveal, double the current industry standard. And the carnage was the worst at facilities where Amazon had undertaken automation.

“The rate of serious injuries from 2016 to 2019 was more than 50% higher at warehouses with robots than ones without,” the report notes. This is because the swarm of hyper-efficient warehouse robots has forced workers to move so fast to keep up they often wind up hurting themselves. “We vastly underestimated the effects it was going to have on our associates,” one former safety manager told Reveal. “We realized early on there was an issue.”

This is not an anomaly with workplace automation — it’s what history says we should expect, especially in the short term. Studies have shown that when companies adopt what is meant to be labor-saving automation, the burden of dealing with the robots, and ensuring they are actually working as intended, falls to other employees, who assume the extra labor and, sometimes, extra risk. (Adding insult to injury is the fact that that work they’re helping the machines do is often work that used to be done by former colleagues who were made redundant by those machines.)

By Amazon’s own admission, the company does not plan to have its facilities fully automated for at least a decade, and it will probably be much longer than that because it will probably never be fully automated. Human workers will be grinding in its gears, to varying extents, the entire time. Last year, I wrote a short piece of speculative fiction for the New York Times’ Op-Eds from the Future series about how, in the not-so-distant future, Amazon might increasingly showcase automation both as a means of ramping up production and distribution efficiency and as a PR tool to distract the public from the fact that it still requires an ever-more-beleaguered workforce of human contractors to keep the whole mess running. This is exactly what’s happening right now, in Amazon facilities across the country.

All that shiny technology, all those nimble robots and finely tuned prediction algorithms, those sleek, handsome warehouses — the panoply of arrived futures invite us to do for the reality of warehouse work that Amazon’s website did for summoning an item to your door. Namely, to forget about how it actually works, and the people required to make it happen. But someone must do the toil that robots cannot, and worse yet, keep pace with them or risk being fired. Someone must do the maintenance on the machines. Someone must do quality control.

If we buy into the corporate dream of automation, we are free to forget about the still-steep human toll, which is precisely what Amazon hopes we will do. This new report, in its meticulous detailing of the devastating and inhumane conditions at Amazon warehouses across the country — especially the automated ones — is a reminder that the future the company is promising simply masks an accelerated version of the same tired old past: Corporate greed is pushing workers to the brink, and execs are sweeping it under the table with empty, mechanical promises.