Inside Amazon

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Amazon is proud of its customer obsession, but where does that leave its workers? Safety Management visits the Tilbury warehouse in Essex to find out what the score is on health, safety and wellbeing at the company.

“Does any of this look frantic? This is the busy day of the week. Everyone’s spread out,” says Robert Burnett, Amazon health and safety manager, as he gestures towards an empty- looking Tilbury warehouse shopfloor. He is keen to show that, contrary to the claims of high targets and stress, it’s hard to see any of that here. Though the workers (called ‘associates’) do seem to be working at a normal pace dressed in casual clothes, the bigger impression is that it’s hard to see anybody at all in the cavernous warehouse space.

Tilbury is a ‘ninth-generation’ warehouse, fitted with the latest systems and technology. It runs 24 hours a day, manned by 2,500 workers (double that number on Black Friday and Christmas) together with robots across a two million square foot space – about 28 football pitches. Even without the robots, the machinery is a big presence, with goods being transported into and around the space on 16 miles of airport-style conveyor belts and down the levels of floors on helter-skelters. The impact is mesmerising and bewildering in equal measure.

The safety itself is designed to match and drive the high-level efficiency, and it’s this that I’m here to see, as well as to understand more about health and wellbeing at LCY2, the name for Amazon’s Tilbury site in Essex. David Nieberg, senior PR manager has joined Robert Burnett, senior regional manager of health and safety at Amazon UK to show me round.

Working with robots

For all the myth-making that surrounds Amazon’s technology and working methods, its warehouse processes seem simple and organised. Basically, goods are stored in four-sided yellow pods, carried to pickers by robots. Robots also assist workers to stow the items onto the same yellow pods when stock arrives. I am shown a ‘picker’ or counting station, where an employee, who has been trained to work alongside the robots, is positioned. Burnett explains what she’s doing: “She scans the barcode, it tells her which one of the totes [buckets], to place it in, she presses a button to say the order’s picked. It tells the robot that the associate is fully clear and it’s safe to drive away.”

Goods are stored in four-sided yellow pods, carried to the 'picker' by robots

He points out safety improvements that have come direct from the workers, who are encouraged to voice any issues through the ‘Safety Saves’ forms placed around the warehouse walls. This includes netting underneath the picking station to catch items if they fall, to save workers reaching down.

Burnett is keen to demonstrate other details. He points to the ergo (anti-fatigue) matting we’re standing on, and he says a recent near-miss at their Nottingham warehouse, where an associate recently “stumbled a little bit” on the edge, has prompted a rethink. “We had a debate about it and at the next safety meeting we’ll discuss if the thickness of the mat needs to change,” he says.

The robots themselves are fenced off in a caged area. Workers are not allowed to cross into it, but engineers will sometimes enter to fix a robot or pick up any item that might fall off from a pod from time to time. An innovation called a ‘Moses vest’ allows them to walk in unscathed: “The vest has got sensors built in – I can walk anywhere in the floor and the robots leave me alone,” explains Burnett.

Squat orange robots move inside a cage to carry the yellow pods to work stations

Minimising movement

One of the major health challenges of any warehouse is musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Reaching, bending and lifting items for 10-hour shifts every day, four days a week (this is standard for all Tilbury staff) must take their toll.

However, at Amazon, these movements are minimised. For example, a machine separates the ‘totes’ into threes and they are sent to their destinations on rollers. “We try to remove manual handling wherever we can go, you can see it’s all pushing – rollers, conveyors. It makes for a better associate experience,” says Burnett. He adds: “It’s part of the technology we have invested in to take out that repetition where we can, to take out the painful repetitive jobs.”

Robert Burnett, senior regional manager of health and safety at Amazon UK

As robots also bring in the items that arrive from suppliers to be put on shelves (known as stowing), it massively reduces the time workers spend walking because there’s no need. Burnett says Tilbury, which is only two years old, is part of a new generation: “Prior to this site, if we had this much stock we’d have a building twice the size and people walking every day. We avoid the walking and get the robots to do the labour.”

An appearance of wellbeing?

To enter into the warehouse I’ve come in via the reception area. Whereas the warehouse is all gunmetal greys and blacks, the brightly coloured walls here are emblazoned with company mottos, such as “Work hard, have fun, make history” and “Customer Obsession”. There is a nervous, febrile edge to the atmosphere – several Amazon staff come up enthusiastically to check I’m OK and people on public tours wait with wide eyes. Birthday balloons and international flags deck the area, proclaiming confidence.

Canteen and table tennis where staff generally go after their shifts are over. Photograph: Amazon

However, it’s hard to know how far this is reflective of having fun at work or if it’s just for show. There is table tennis and a small library in the canteen area, for example, but Nieberg says it’s only practical to use these after the 10-hour shift is over and workers are waiting to be collected. You would be hard pushed to travel those football pitched-sized spaces to reach these facilities in time – staff squeeze a half-hour break into their day for lunch and two 15-minute breaks.

When it comes to wellbeing provisions, the basics are visible on the warehouse floors. Drinking water stations are interspersed everywhere; toilets are on every one of the four floors, which also each have small break-out rooms with skylights allowing natural light in, counteracting the artificial yellow light of the shopfloor. Time docking stations called ‘time clocks’, where workers must scan their passes to mark the start of breaks, are the only sign of vigilance on productivity.

We are not robots

Visiting the warehouse to get a glimpse into its health, safety and wellbeing standards has been just that, a glimpse.

Speaking outside Tilbury at a demonstration for GMB’s We Are not Robots campaign earlier this year, Labour MP Jack Dromey said: “This is a company that pretends it’s a ‘space age’ company, it behaves like a 19th century mill owner, with an appalling track record of health and safety.”

In this brief visit, it seemed that the facilities were good and safety was embedded into the tiniest detail, from the floor matting to the rollers that distribute boxes, ironing out the possibility for back strain.

On the other hand, in the quest for safety and efficiency, a lot of individual autonomy appears to have been taken out. Staff aren’t allowed to waste time walking or using their brains to find an item, because the robot does that work for them. It could be argued the employees simply become another type of robot, valued for their capacity to stow or pick items quickly, rather than their own judgment and initiative.

Our focus is the customers

The danger is that this can be mentally wearing. When I asked Graham Finn, corporate EHS director at Amazon, at this year’s Safety Expo, what he makes of the media claims about stress and targets, he said that the point is the staff are safe: “Our focus is about customers and serving customers, doing things faster, getting the package to them the next day and we’ve had to be innovative in how we’ve adapted health and safety programmes to make sure people are safe while doing that.”

More intensive interactions with machines bring threats to mental health, including “worsening of workplace atmosphere, worker involvement and peer support", according to Cambridge university's paper

No one is really talking about the issues. Professor Cary Cooper, writing in British Safety Council’s Future of Work report, says that although there’s a lot of debate at conferences and from think tanks on what the future of work could look like, “there has been less of a focus on what this might mean for our health, safety and wellbeing.”

However, a report by the University of Cambridge, titled OK Computer? issued in August, has called for new regulations to tackle a new breed of risk. It predicts that overreliance on cobots [collaborative robots] could result in loss of bone density or joint flexibility. More intensive interactions with machines bring threats to mental health, including “worsening of workplace atmosphere, worker involvement and peer support.” In Tilbury, on the staff whiteboard, someone has scrawled ‘give me my holidays back’. Is the pressure getting to these workers?

Myth and reality

The visit also put a reality check on some of the hype surrounding Amazon’s new robots and technology. At the firm’s re:MARS conference in Las Vegas in June, Amazon revealed plans for robots called Pegasus and Xanthus, named after mythical horses. Also announced was Prime Air, a “future delivery system” designed to get packages to customers in 30 minutes via drone.

My guides at Tilbury said, however, that full automation was at least a lifetime away, the view being “What could get better than this?” The value of human hands and eyes is just too great compared with expensive, fully autonomous robots. “The robots are there to help us; our projected growth means we need additional help. It’s not the case that they’re replacing workers, it’s more that the people build in around the system,” says Burnett. Whether the machine-filled warehouse is a happy or healthy environment to be in for people, is another question.


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