Amazon’s ‘safe’ new robot won’t solve worker injury 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 pounds of customer orders from the warehouse to human pickers, but work in a part of the warehouse where humans can’t go.

Strategic Organization Center Health and Safety Director Eric Frumin says Amazon’s promotion of a new human-avoidance robot is distracting from the primary causes of injuries at its facilities.

“Amazon has a fantastic capacity to create new and more glamorous hazards for workers,” says Frumin. “Maybe this robot will have some new threat to workers, but I’m more concerned about the complete blindness within the company to the dangers they know about.” He says those hazards include requiring workers to perform rapid and repetitive motions that cause injury: for example, when loading trucks from floor to ceiling or using manual pallet jacks.

Frumin co-authored the Strategic Organization Center’s analysis of Amazon’s filings with OSHA, published in April. It found that since 2017, the only annual decline in worker injury rates occurred in 2020, when worker quotas were temporarily reduced as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Injury rates then increased by 20 percent in 2021, the report said. It also found that although Amazon employs one in three warehouse workers in the United States, half of all warehouse worker injuries occurred at company-operated facilities. About 90 percent of injuries at Amazon were serious enough to cause people to miss work or make them unable to perform regular job functions.

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

Proteus was unveiled last month at Amazon’s re:MARS conference along with other technology that the company claims will improve the safety of warehouse workers. A camera system called AR ID can automatically identify packages without requiring workers to hold a barcode scanner. A robot named Cardinal lifts packages up to 50 pounds, and another, formerly known as Ernie, places items into storage containers, a task performed by humans who must climb stairs multiple times to place items in tall carts.

Debbie Berkowitz, a senior policy adviser and OSHA chief of staff during the Obama administration, said Amazon significantly expanded its use of robots in its warehouses during the Trump administration, when federal officials did not respond to reports of high injury rates. “Basically, nobody was watching when it happened,” says Berkovic, who in the 1980s and 1990s worked as a safety director for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, negotiating with companies that operate supermarket warehouses.

“Ultimately, I think robots will only make things better for consumers and worse for workers, who will work harder and faster,” says Berkowitz. She believes Amazon failed to take into account the natural variability of human body size early in the expansion, which led to higher rates of musculoskeletal injuries from workers making highly repetitive but forceful movements.

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

Berkowitz says that if Amazon gave her control over worker safety in its warehouses, she would hire ergonomics experts to visit every Amazon fulfillment center and meet with workers, review injury records, find out which jobs had the most pain reports, and start think about design changes to better protect those workers. “They could really be the leaders here.”

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