Vested interest: Amazon shows how company can marry technology to safety to efficiency to profits

Once you get past the jaw-dropping technology that helps the employees at the Amazon fulfillment center in Robbinsville handle 17 transactions per second … get past the idea that each individual item is stowed, picked, packaged, sorted and shipped with assembly-line precision … get past the incorrect assumption that technology is taking away jobs (it’s actually adding them at these facilities) … you see how Amazon’s disruptive business model is rooted in one thing: workplace safety.

And you see that in the lightweight red vests some of the trained associates at the facility are wearing.

In 2014, Robbinsville was the first of Amazon’s now more than 100 fulfillment centers in the U.S. to open with robotic technology. The coolest of which are what Amazon calls drive units, or the circular robotic pods (about the size of a manhole cover) that connect underneath to bring large storage container pods to employees who both fill them up with products that are available for sale (or, “stow”) and then pull them out to fill orders (or, “pick”).

In other words, the robots bring the shelves — and then the products — to associates, who previously would have had to search the many football-field-size aisles for the company’s hundreds of thousands of product offerings.

These aisles — which now serve as roadways for the company’s more than 200 robotic drive units — have been made off-limits to associates, who wait for the containers to come to them.

Off-limits, that is, unless you have a red vest and the Kindle control pad that comes with it.

These vests, connected to the drivers through Wi-Fi, allow certified technicians to enter the floor on a predetermined path. They could enter to pick up a loose product, make an adjustment to a robot or large carrying bin, or for just regularly scheduled cleaning or maintenance. 

There was just one problem: People, unlike robots, don’t always stay on course. The vest helps to compensate for that. The drive units, once notified by a command from the Kindle, will slow down or completely stop once an associate is near — information they pick up from a signal sent out by the vest.

It’s a way to protect workers, said Ryan Smith, the Northeast region director of operations, who helped open the Robbinsville facility five years ago.

“We’re always looking out for the associate,” he told ROI-NJ during an exclusive tour in preparation for the Safety Innovation in New Jersey: Leading in Logistics panel presented by ROI-NJ and Amazon last week in Trenton.

“There is no yellow line for an associate to follow, so there’s a chance a person will step outside their path. This vest mitigates the chances of a safety issue when that happens.”

Smith said it’s a way Amazon combines technology with human nature.

“We always talk about how we marry operations and technology together to be more efficient, but a big portion of that is how do we make the job safer for people, because we understand it can be a demanding job,” he said. “Our goal is for associates to leave the facility in the same condition they came in.

“It’s not enough to just be efficient, it has to be safe.” 

That’s why the vest was introduced in 2018. And it’s why the vest was revamped earlier this year.

“The vest was heavy and bulky — and the associates didn’t like to wear it,” Smith said. “We found people would only put it on when they had to enter the gated area. And they didn’t like it then.”

The change was easy to make. But it only came about due to Amazon’s commitment to actually listening to its employees, Smith said. 

That’s a tall task, considering approximately 3,000 are employed at the Robbinsville center alone. But Smith said it’s all a part of the company’s commitment to ensuring workplace safety.

New associates undergo a six-hour safety training course on their first day. And they are assigned an ambassador or shadow trainer for much of their opening weeks on the job. But the commitment to safety does not end there, Smith said.

When employees sign into a station or a scanner, they get a daily question. Often, it is about safety.

Smith gave an example: “Did your Day 1 training match what you actually do and match the real-life expectations of the job?”

At the beginning of a shift, managers will have digital safety circles, where they pull a group of associates together and discuss any on-the-job issues.

The workstations — whether it be for stowing, picking or packing — are set at ergonomically correct heights for employees.

“At the end,” Smith said, “they’ll all turn around and ask, ‘Is there anything that we see that is a safety risk?’ If there is, we’ll correct it right away.”

Amazon also has started Associate Safety Committees, which meet once a month to discuss on-the-job issues. The goal, Smith said, is produce “safety saves.”

“Safety saves are an associate-driven campaign,” he said. “It’s a way associates can alert us that they see something that’s unsafe, whether it’s a behavioral or environmental. We’ll fix it. And it not only makes us safer, it’s a really good way to show we do care about safety.”

Smith said Amazon also is taking steps to reduce the potential for repetitive stress injuries. At least once an hour, employees get a notice to take a one-minute stretch break, allowing them a quick break to reset. And, as needed, stretch out.

The workstations — whether it be for stowing, picking or packing — are set at ergonomically correct heights. Employees who stow and pick are taught correct procedures for bending and reaching. Mounted scanners recently replaced many hand-held scanners, saving a motion for the employees.

Even the shipment of the small number of totes that need to be sent to other facilities to complete an order is made easier and safer. A palletizer (think, long-armed robot) moves bins onto pallets, eliminating the need for humans to do heavy lifting. 

The company even has hired certified athletic trainers who do routine audits and work with managers and members of the Associate Safety Committees on best practices.

“They train the trainers,” Smith said.

Amazon has more than 2,000 employees directly responsible for safety. It’s a number that impresses Heather MacDougall, who serves as vice president, worldwide operations, workplace health and safety.

MacDougall, who was recruited to the company in April 2019 from her job as a chairman of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, said Amazon more than talks the talk when it comes to workplace safety.

“We’re working with universities and we’re employing experts who look at ergonomics and help us use what they call predictive modeling and machine learning to look at the movements of associates as they do their work, so we can figure out how to make it as safe as possible,” she said. 

“And we’re continuing to invest not only in our associates, but in the safety of our facilities. In 2018, we invested $55 million in safety improvements. This year, we’ve already invested $61 million in safety improvements.”

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