At this point, those who cannot work remotely certainly know the importance of maintaining social distancing at their workstations. Whether they are in a factory, a health care facility, an airport or train station or any office where you just have to be there — 6 feet is the rule when you’re on the job.
Maintaining that distance — when you go to the breakroom, down a main corridor or the stairs, or even through the entrance and exit — isn’t easy. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 virus doesn’t hold off if you’re keeping your distance most of the time. It needs to be all the time.
That was the impetus for the “Distance Assistant,” which Amazon created for its workforce in hundreds of locations around the country. It is in almost all New Jersey facilities.
Simply put, cameras are set up in key areas to capture everyone who walks through. Then, through artificial intelligence, it places a colored bubble around each person. Green? You’re good to go. Yellow? You’re starting to get too close. Red? Time to back off and create the required distance.
Amazon’s Heather MacDougall, vice president, worldwide, workplace health and safety, said it’s just one way the company is using technology to keep its millions of employees safe on the job.
“It’s a really useful tool for people to see in real time how they’re doing with social distancing,” she said. “We place this in areas where people step away from work. They’re in sort of this lull, where there’s this desire to want to go up and talk to the person that you see — and to forget for a moment about the importance of social distancing.”
The Distance Assistant is one of more than 150 new safety features the company has implemented or created since the global pandemic started. It’s also one that the company is willingly giving away for free.
“It’s technology that’s available now for anybody to download,” she said. “As long as you have a computer, and a camera, you can download the technology that we’ve crowdsourced and made publicly available so anybody can create their own Distance Assistant.”
MacDougall said Amazon feels the technology serves the greater good and wants to share it with all. It’s an example, she said, of how Amazon has made employee safety — even the safety of employees at other companies — a top priority.
“Not everyone has access to the same technology, scientists or health and safety experts that we do, which is why I think it’s really important to focus on some of the basics, and then also to share our learnings with businesses, government and communities so that we can all learn and apply best practices where we can,” she said.
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The company shares the product and other ideas in a variety of ways, MacDougall said. There are national groups such as the National Safety Council or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, or other employer community groups.
MacDougall said a lot of companies have reached out to Amazon individually. Sometimes, they are customers of Amazon Web Services, and they just want to hear how Amazon operations has been dealing with the pandemic. Other times, she said, it’s just a matter of picking up the phone. Amazon is happy to do so.
Then, there are the relationships she said the company has made with health authorities.
“At the local level, county level, state level and the national level, it’s really important to have those discussions with others about what their expertise is, and what they want us to do, as well as share with them what we are doing, and constantly asking, ‘Is this what you want to see? What more information can we share with you?’” she said.
MacDougall said the Distance Assistant originated from an existing process the company already had.
“We’ve deployed artificial intelligence and machine learning to our cameras’ footage that we already have in our buildings,” she said. “But we retrofitted them so that we could use our cameras to help site leaders identify areas that might have high traffic, where we need to implement additional measures to improve social distancing.
“Through this technology, we saw an opportunity to take it a step further.”
MacDougall said she hopes other companies will take advantage.
“This is one that I think that a lot of people have been super-excited about, because it’s easy for any employer to implement,” she said. “And it’s thanks to our experts here at Amazon who saw a need and came up with an innovation that’s easy to deploy.”