Amazon’s ‘safe’ new robot won’t solve worker injury problem

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Since the founding of the Amazon bringing robots to your warehouses in 2014company executives repeatedly argued that they improve work safety. But company records received Show showed that between 2016 and 2019, serious injuries were more common in Amazon warehouses with robots than without them, suggesting that robots reduce employee safety by forcing managers to raise productivity quotas. Analysis of applications to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) by Washington Post found that in 2020 Amazon warehouses were about twice as likely to be seriously injured than other companies. Separate analysis of OSHA data by trade union coalition Strategic organizing center found the same pattern for 2021.

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Amazon didn’t mention that track record late last month when it announced a machine called Proteus, which the company is calling its first fully mobile collaboration robot. Executives again said the robots would improve worker safety. Initially, Proteus will move packages around the dock to be shipped to fulfillment centers, but Amazon wants the robot to one day move goods from one side of the warehouse to the other and work directly with people.

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Ty Brady, chief technology officer at Amazon Robotics, says the company will not use Proteus in a way that could harm people. “Personally, it hurts me a lot to hear the words ‘harming people’,” he says. “We are constantly striving to reduce injury rates at our facilities. We take this very seriously and we must design our machines in a way that makes them safer and easier to use for our employees.”

Amazon spokesman Aw Zammit said OSHA data shows that Amazon’s injury rate has declined between 2019 and 2021, while other major retailers have seen increases. He did not comment on why other analyzes of Amazon’s documents consistently show that the company’s injury rate is significantly higher than that of other warehouse operators.

Brady likens Proteus to a cocktail party server that keeps its distance from people and slows down to avoid collisions. The robot uses on-board sensors to maintain what it calls a protective bubble, which the machine expands or contracts when it detects people or obstacles nearby. Enter the Proteus path and it will use computer vision to recognize if someone is in the way and then stop. If Proteus sees a path around people close to its protective bubble, it will slow down and will not get closer than half a meter to any person or obstacle.

Currently, Proteus is moving at a speed of about 1.5 meters per second, which is equivalent to brisk walking. The robot can make warning sounds and project a bright green light onto the floor, signaling the path it is about to take. Amazon’s Zammit declined to provide details about the sensors Proteus uses to detect people or objects nearby, or whether the company has tested the robot’s vision system to make sure it works fairly for people with different skin tones.

Previously, Amazon separated humans from robots, but last year began deploying robots that work alongside humans, with machines. named after dolls like Scooter and Kermit. Zammit says the original version of Proteus was named Bert.

The introduction of Proteus came 10 years after the acquisition of Amazon Kiva Systems, which became Amazon Robotics. Kiva robots move customer orders weighing up to 1,000 pounds from the warehouse to the pickers, but work in a part of the warehouse where people can’t get to.

Eric Froumin, director of health and safety for the Center for Strategic Organization, says Amazon’s ad for a new robot that avoids human contact is distracting attention from the root causes of injuries at its plants.

“Amazon has an incredible ability to create new and more attractive hazards for workers,” says Froumin. “Maybe this robot will have some new threat to the workers, but I’m more concerned about the complete blindness in the company regarding the dangers that they know about.” He says these hazards include the need for workers to make quick and repetitive movements that can lead to injury, such as loading trucks from floor to ceiling or using manual pallet jacks.

Froumin co-authored an analysis of Amazon documents at OSHA by the Center for Strategic Organization and published in April. It found that since 2017, the company’s only annual decline in injury rates occurred in 2020, when it temporarily cut work quotas as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Injury rates increased by 20 percent in 2021, the report says. It also found that while Amazon employs one in three warehouse workers in the US, half of all warehouse worker injuries occur at facilities the company operates. About 90 percent of injuries at Amazon were severe enough to cause people to miss work or be unable to perform normal work functions.

This March, following inspections of Amazon warehouses in their home state of Washington, state regulators fined company $60,000 for an “intentional serious breach” of safety regulations that could result in injuries to the lower back and upper extremities.

Proteus was unveiled last month at Amazon’s re:MARS conference along with other technologies the company says will improve the safety of warehouse workers. A camera system called AR ID can automatically identify packages without requiring employees to have a barcode scanner. Robot by name Cardinal picks up parcels up to 50 pounds, and the other, formerly known as Ernieplaces items in storage containers, a task performed by people who must constantly climb stairs to place items in tall carts.

Debbie Berkowitz, OSHA’s senior policy adviser and chief of staff during the Obama administration, says Amazon greatly expanded the use of robots in its warehouses during the Trump administration when federal officials failed to respond to reports of high injury rates. “Basically, no one was watching when it happened,” says Berkowitz, who in the 1980s and 1990s was director of safety for the Amalgamated Food and Trade Workers Union, negotiating with supermarket warehouse managers.

“In the end, I think that robots will just make life better for consumers and worse for workers who will work harder and faster,” says Berkowitz. She believes that Amazon failed to account for the natural variability in human body size early in its expansion, resulting in higher numbers. musculoskeletal injuries from workers making frequent but vigorous movements.

Amazon’s Brady told WIRED that the company is looking to cut down on repetitive tasks and heavy lifting to reduce musculoskeletal injuries. “Every time an incident happens,” he says, “we take a close look at it and ask ourselves, ‘How can we improve the system so that it doesn’t happen again?’ Last month, Amazon promised to reduce musculoskeletal risk. and injuries 25 percent by 2025.

Berkowitz says that if Amazon gave her control over the safety of workers in its warehouses, it would hire ergonomics experts to visit each Amazon fulfillment center and meet with workers, review injury logs, find out which jobs generate the most complaints. and started thinking about the design. changes to better protect these workers. “They really could be the leader here.”

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