VP of Safety MacDougall: Amazon aims to ‘be the leader in workplace safety’

Heather MacDougall was named vice president, worldwide operations, workplace health and safety by Amazon in April. She was recruited to the company while serving as the chairman of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, an independent federal agency.

At Amazon, MacDougall oversees a team of approximately 2,000 that is responsible for all initiatives involving workplace safety and well-being for the company’s more than 750,000 employees, including more than 17,500 in New Jersey.

MacDougall works out of the company’s Washington, D.C., office, but has been traveling extensively since coming on board in April. She said she has been impressed with what she has seen.

“We seek to use our tech capabilities and our relentless focus on innovation to be the leader in workplace safety,” she said. “It’s been interesting to me, because I spent 25 years as a safety professional, and now I come in with some fresh eyes and I get to see all of this really exciting technology and innovation.”

MacDougall was a panelist at the recent Safety Innovation in New Jersey: Leading in Logistics panel presented by ROI-NJ and Amazon. The following are a few of her remarks, edited for clarity and to reorganized to fit this format.

ROI-NJ: Talk about how Amazon is a leader in workplace safety?

Heather MacDougall: One of the ways is through engagement. And that may sound very old school — you think of pencil-and-paper type of surveys — but Amazon has come up with some really great platforms that I don’t think anybody else is using. One is called our Safety Leadership Index. It’s a way that we ask our employees questions every day to get feedback on how they feel about safety at Amazon when they log on. We use that information to get real-time feedback on how our associates are feeling and to identify areas where our leaders need to focus and areas where we need to make technical adjustments. We get a tremendous amount of data just by asking you those questions.

ROI: How else does Amazon interact with its associates?

Amazon studies the movements of associates as they work, so it can figure out how to make their jobs as safe as possible.

HM: We developed another platform called Digital Safety Circles. It’s very similar to the (Safety Leadership Index), but it takes smaller groups of associates, usually in groups of five to 10, and they stand in a circle with their manager and answer those same type of questions. The manager can get real-time feedback about how those associates feel about safety through questions like: ‘Do you feel that Amazon prioritizes safety? Do you feel like your manager cares about safety? Do you feel like you’re able to report a safety concern?’ It opens up discussion so associates can get immediate feedback.

From there, they talk about hazard identification. They walk around and look for areas in the building where perhaps there’s a problem. There could be some cleanup that needs to be done or could be issues that associates say would make their workstation more ergonomic or easier. These are real-time opportunities for managers to learn how associates are feeling about safety at Amazon. 

ROI: There’s a lot of moving machines within the fulfillment center. That brings different challenges. What’s going on there?

HM: We’re looking closely at our PIT equipment — that’s powered industrial trucks. Things like forklifts. We’re working with vendors in three locations around the globe, saying, ‘We want you to do more for workplace safety, so there’s no chance of there being interaction between a piece of equipment and a pedestrian.’ We’re working on things that have telematics and light sensing, where it essentially can tell the piece of equipment when it needs to slow down. For example, when something is coming to the end of a row and we don’t want it to go beyond a certain speed as it goes out onto the floor, where there may be other PIT equipment or pedestrians. So, it could tell that piece of equipment to slow down and stop without the driver having to do anything.

This is something that these vendors are doing specifically for Amazon that they’re not doing for anybody else out in the marketplaces. Hopefully those innovations will then make their way to the marketplace. 

ROI: What about outside the building?

HM: We’re also using telematics with transportation. We’re in the logistics side of the business as well. We want to make sure that we have safe drivers out there and we’re using telematics to help identify where there are behaviors that can be potentially hazardous before they ever result in an accident. We’re looking at things like: ‘Are they wearing their seat belt? Are they braking too hard? Are they driving too fast? Are they tired?’ Those are types of things that we can monitor through telematics that give us real-time feedback so we can coach drivers before that would result in the accident. And then we’re also using simulators to help train those drivers before they even go out in the road.

ROI: Of course, the employees themselves are doing a lot of repetitive stress movements. How are you addressing that?

HM: We are looking at ergonomics because of the nature of the work now. It’s not so much walking within a fulfillment center to go to a shelf, but reaching within a pod to find the product or to place the product. So, we want to make sure that we’re looking at how that kind of movement affects employees. 

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.

ROI: We can’t forget, Amazon is a technology company. Talk about how you gather and sort your workplace information?

HM: You can imagine that we get so much data with the number of associates that we have. Looking at that data, and mining it, we can be really specific and highlighting sort of critical areas where we need to focus. And along those same lines, we’re now piloting our own WHS (Warehouse Health and Safety) management system that we’ve created ourselves that helps us collect data, manages our reporting and helps us with the policies and digitizing program standards and scheduling, things such as inspections and audits and actions. So, we’re leveraging our technology to help us with all of these things.

I think how we use technology to improve workplace safety at Amazon raises the bar for everybody else as well, frankly.

Read more from ROI-NJ’s event: