At Amazon, workplace safety is about ability to pivot — never forgetting about your people

Amazon was no different than most companies that had a workforce who had to stay on the job when COVID-19 first reach the country. When the seriousness of the global pandemic became apparent, Amazon purchased thousands of handheld thermometers so it could scan its employees as they entered the workplace.

Then Amazon did two things most companies don’t do. It adjusted — then pivoted. Handheld thermometers, despite the initial investment, are only a part of the company’s safety plan today.

So said Heather MacDougall, vice president, worldwide, workplace health and safety. Speaking at an event co-organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, MacDougall talked about a number of issues, including not only the company’s commitment to safety, but its commitment to always be better. And its commitment to put people first.

The problem with handheld thermometers was apparent on the first day: How would those conducting the screenings be protected?

“We had a team that, within about 24 hours, came up with a Plexiglas design to allow separation,” MacDougall said. “I was amazed at how quickly that design, and then the manufacture of that barrier, was rolled out across hundreds of sites globally within a span of just a couple of days.”

An Amazon thermal camera. (Amazon)

The barrier, however, didn’t help another issue. A people problem. It was taking too long to measure each employee as they entered the facilities. Lines were backing up. It was time for a pivot.

“We very quickly pivoted to rolling out these thermal cameras, which are so much quicker,” MacDougall said.

Being able to adjust and pivot on the fly can only happen when the entire company is committed to finding the right solution — not just a solution.

That appears to be the case at Amazon.

It’s one thing to throw money at the problem. The company has spent hundreds of millions of — nearly a billion — dollars on personal protective equipment, including the purchase of 283 million masks and 450 million ounces of sanitizing spray among other too-big-to-comprehend purchase orders.

It’s another to make sure what you’re buying — and what you’re implementing — makes sense for the people you are trying to protect.

Amazon’s breakroom, with Plexiglas barriers. (Amazon)

Take the breakroom. Amazon started by creating long benches, with seating 6 feet apart. It met the social distancing needs — but not the social needs of Amazon employees.

“We learned that people missed being able to interact,” MacDougall said.

An adjustment was needed.

“We’ve made changes so that we have Plexiglas,” she said. “People are still able to interact on their breaks, but maintain that social distance.

“We have to keep in mind that people want to be social. So, we have to find ways to implement social distancing in a way that recognizes how people interact or the behaviors of people.”

It’s no surprise that this adaptability begins with human interaction.

As the former commissioner and acting chairman of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, MacDougall is a workplace safety expert with few peers. But, she’ll be the first to tell you that the constant flow of ideas between frontline employees and managers is the key to Amazon’s success.

“Health and safety is not just for the (Environmental Health and Safety) team, or within the leadership team, but throughout our entire company,” she said. “For me and my team here at Amazon, safety has always been a top priority. But, now, it’s center stage. Not just for operations, but for everyone.

“In any one of our meetings, we now have people in the mix with all kinds of different perspectives and backgrounds, whether they’re scientists or project managers or procurement specialists. Everybody comes together in our daily meetings with ideas about how we can keep people protected. We have daily conversations about what we’re doing. And we have intense conversations.

“We’re always asking ourselves, ‘Is there more that we could be doing?’”

The company appears to be doing a lot. Aside from the PPE and markings on the floor that all companies have implemented — aside from the thermal screenings when you enter and converted areas when you need a break — the company has implemented a Distance Assistant (see its story here) to help with social distancing in times of moment. It long ago canceled in-person meetings and made onboarding — and daily sign-ins — virtual or touchless events.

Amazon even instituted its own (voluntary) testing program, where employees can self-test (it is clinician-observed) and get a result back in 2-3 days. Amazon built its own testing lab in Hebron, Kentucky.

Amazon released its health findings in September, which demonstrated the company’s COVID-19 outbreaks were 42% lower than what would have been statistically expected for the total number of its employees.

So, what’s the next pivot? The COVID-19 vaccine, after all, is out.

It’s unclear where Amazon employees will fall under the order of employees who get vaccinated first. Regardless, MacDougall said the company’s commitment to safety will not go away if COVID-19 is controlled. Especially if the adjustments make sense.

MacDougall quickly rattled off temperature screening, markings on floors, new ways of clocking in and out, new ways of training and virtual onboarding.

“All of these are all great technological innovations that are going to serve us well beyond the pandemic,” she said. “It certainly is great that all this technology is in place.

“Sometimes, I think: What would things have been like if we had gone through this pandemic 20 years earlier?”

Progress — with the ability to adjust and pivot — will always be part of the management plan, MacDougall said.

“I think we continue to innovate, we continue to build technology that furthers us all, whether we’re in a pandemic or not,” she said.

MacDougall said there’s just one thing that needs to go back in time.

“I would hope that there will come a day where we don’t have Plexiglas barriers in our breakrooms,” she said. “I think that’s something that everybody would like to see go away — just so you can continue to interact with your coworkers just like we used to.”