How do you reopen business safely in N.J.? Amazon exec details its experience

I serve as the director of North America customer fulfillment operations at Amazon, which has remained open during the pandemic. To say the last few months have been the most challenging of my professional career would be an understatement. But, I’m here to say: It is possible to return to workplace safely. We’re proving it every day.

Tens of thousands of frontline employees in New Jersey — and more around the country — have relied on the guidance from Amazon leaders, including me, to create the safest working environment possible. Each day, our internal workplace health and safety team, Amazon’s own epidemiologist, local and federal health authorities, and our operations teams focus on how to create and maintain a safe environment during this crisis.

As other businesses begin the process of reopening, here is what has worked for us.

In the early days of the pandemic, Amazon made more than 150 process changes to protect and support the health and safety of our employees — some of them were implemented in a matter of hours, overnight or in a few short days across buildings that span more than 1 million square feet. And, what we’ve seen over the past five months is that our efforts are working. While safety supplies such as gloves, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes always have been standard at our facilities, we quickly procured thousands of additional supplies for each of our operations sites, as well as millions of masks. Amazon also implemented a strict, 6-foot social distancing policy (which is reviewed thousands of times daily in each building using a complex AI system), and recently rolled out Distance Assistant, technology that provides real-time social distancing feedback to associates.

As someone who has spent the majority of his career in fulfillment centers, I can attest that we have completely revamped them to ensure we are operating as safely as possible. These are not minor changes that have happened over the course of months; many of these were done over a single day and involved completely redesigning break rooms, work areas and traffic flows. What’s more, we have done what operators do best and continued to challenge and improve on this over the last few months based on feedback from our incredible associates. This was done while simultaneously receiving an increase in important customer orders from across the globe. We’ve invested more than $800 million in the first half of 2020 on COVID-19 safety measures and $4 billion from April to June to safely get products to our customers.

Today, when anyone enters an Amazon building, there are thermal cameras that instantly take their temperature. We tripled the janitorial staff at each of sites and increased the number of times crews are sanitizing and cleaning the entire fulfillment center six-fold every day. In addition, each workstation is filled with additional cleaning supplies, which provides associates convenient access to regularly disinfect their workstations. In March, our teams began implementing disinfectant spraying — a practice commonly used by hospitals and airlines — to supplement the enhanced cleaning and sanitization measures already in place. That practice is now standard at our 110-plus fulfillment centers and additional operations facilities across North America.

Amazon eliminated large group meetings and streamlined processes that would typically encourage a group gathering, including virtual standup messaging and virtual training directly at the associates’ stations.

I am especially attuned to what is happening in New Jersey, where I have lived my entire life. As a Robbinsville resident and the proud father of three young kids, I’ve launched and led the operations at Amazon fulfillment centers in Robbinsville, Edison and Carteret. I’ve built longstanding relationships with associates eager to share enhanced levels of safety, as we continue to reassess our operations, and I still see and hear from them directly through our messaging system or when I visit sites.

So, what have we learned from this? First, there is not one simple solution. It involves hard work to implement hundreds of process changes, mandatory masks and social distancing, and thermal cameras. It also involves constantly being vigilant to see what more can be done and acting quickly to make those changes. I am extremely proud of the entire team at Amazon for consistently raising the bar and doing this. But as hard as we are trying, I have learned what Amazon can’t do: protect employees beyond our doors. When associates return to their communities and interact with others who are not practicing social distancing, it creates risk. That’s why we are continually investing time and resources in educating our employees on all the ways they can keep themselves and their families safe, both inside and outside of our facilities.

As the rest of New Jersey’s businesses begin the process of reopening, we welcome them back and wish them the best as they face complex challenges that we’ve never seen before. Together, we can make New Jersey safe again by learning more from one another and sharing best practices.

Ryan Smith is the director of North America customer fulfillment operations for Amazon.