Since Amazon began bringing robots to its warehouses in 2014, company executives have repeatedly claimed that they improve worker safety. But company records obtained by Reveal showed that between 2016 and 2019 serious injuries occurred more often in Amazon warehouses with robots than those without them, suggesting that robots made employees less safe by causing managers to raise performance quotas. Analysis of Amazon's reports to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) by The Washington Post found that in 2020, serious injuries were roughly twice as likely to occur in its warehouses than those run by other companies. A separate analysis of OSHA data by labor union coalition the Strategic Organizing Center found the same pattern for 2021.
Amazon didn’t mention that track record late last month when it announced a machine called Proteus, which company officials call their first fully mobile and collaborative robot. Executives again claimed that robots will improve worker safety. Proteus will initially ferry packages around the outbound dock in fulfillment centers, but Amazon wants the robot to one day move items from one side of a warehouse to another, and work directly with humans.
Tye Brady, chief technologist for Amazon Robotics, says the company would not operate Proteus in a way that could hurt people. “Just hearing the words ‘hurting people’ gives me personally a lot of pain,” he says. “It's a constant effort to reduce the injury rate inside of our facilities. We have a lot of focus on that, and it’s on us to design our machines in a way that makes it safer and easier for our employees to use.”
Amazon spokesperson Av Zammit said OSHA data showed Amazon’s injury rate declined between 2019 and 2021 while other large retailers saw an increase. He did not comment on why other analyses of Amazon’s filings have consistently shown the company’s injury rate to be significantly higher than that of other warehouse operators.
Brady likens Proteus to a server at a cocktail party, keeping its distance from people and slowing down to avoid collisions. The robot uses onboard sensors to maintain what he calls a safety bubble, which the machine widens or contracts when it detects people or obstacles nearby. Step into the path of Proteus and it will use computer vision to recognize that someone is in the way, then come to a stop. If Proteus sees a path around people close to its safety bubble, it will reduce speed and get no closer than half a meter from any person or obstacle.
Proteus currently moves at a speed of about 1.5 meters per second, the equivalent of a brisk walk. The robot can produce warning sounds and project a bright, green light onto the floor signaling the path it intends to take. Amazon’s Zammit declined to provide details about the sensors Proteus uses to detect humans or objects nearby, or whether the company has tested the robot’s vision system to see if it works fairly for people with different skin tones.
Amazon previously kept people and robots apart but began deploying robots that operate around people last year, with machines named after Muppets like Scooter and Kermit. Zammit says the initial version of Proteus was named Bert.
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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 storage to human pickers, but operate in a part of the warehouse where humans cannot go.
Strategic Organizing Center’s health and safety director Eric Frumin says Amazon’s promotion of a new robot that avoids running into people is a distraction from the primary causes of injuries in its facilities.
“Amazon has a fabulous capacity for creating new and more glamorous hazards to workers,” Frumin says. “Maybe this robot will have some new threat to workers, but I'm more concerned about the complete blindness at the company regarding the hazards they know about.” He says those hazards include requiring workers to perform fast and repetitive motions that cause injuries: for example, when loading trucks from floor to ceiling or using manual pallet jacks.
Frumin was a coauthor on the Strategic Organizing Center’s analysis of Amazon filings with OSHA, released in April. It found that since 2017 the company’s only annual decline in worker injury rates took place in 2020, when it temporarily reduced worker quotas as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Injury rates then increased 20 percent in 2021, the report found. It also found that although Amazon employs one out of three warehouse employees in the United States, half of all injuries to warehouse workers occurred in facilities operated by the company. About 90 percent of injuries at Amazon were serious enough for people to miss work or render them incapable of doing regular job functions.
In March this year, after inspections of Amazon warehouses in the company’s home state of Washington, state regulators fined the company $60,000 for “willful, serious violation” of safety rules that could lead to lower back and upper extremity injuries.
Proteus was introduced last month at Amazon’s re:MARS conference alongside other technology that the company claims will improve safety for warehouse workers. A camera system called AR ID can automatically identify packages without requiring workers to hold a barcode scanner. A robot called Cardinal picks up packages up to 50 pounds, and another, formerly known as Ernie, places items in containers for storage, a task performed by people who must repeatedly climb stairs to place items in tall carts.
Debbie Berkowitz, a senior policy adviser and chief of staff at OSHA during the Obama administration, says that Amazon significantly expanded use of robots in its warehouses during the Trump administration, when federal officials were not responsive to reports about high injury rates. “Essentially, nobody was watching when this happened,” says Berkowitz, 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 stock warehouses.
“In the end, I think the robots are just going to make it better for consumers and worse for workers, who are going to be working harder and faster,” Berkowitz says. She believes that Amazon failed to account for the natural variability in human body size early in its expansion, leading to higher rates of musculoskeletal injuries from workers making highly repetitive but forceful motions.
Brady of Amazon told WIRED that the company looks for opportunities to reduce repetitive tasks and heavy lifting in order to reduce musculoskeletal injuries. “Every time there's an incident,” he says, “we take a really sharp look at it and ask ourselves, ‘How can we improve the system such that 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 of worker safety in its warehouses, she would hire ergonomics experts to visit every Amazon fulfillment center and meet with workers, review injury logs, figure out which jobs have the highest reports of pain, and begin considering design changes to better protect those workers. “They could really be a leader here.”