Amazon Uses Automation to Hide a Disastrous Record of Workplace Injuries
As robotization scales up, so do injuries
For the last decade, Amazon has been on an automation spree. The retail behemoth is mechanizing its warehouses, buying up robotics companies, and transforming its facilities into state-of-the-art, semi-automated distribution centers. The goal is clear enough: to move, sort, and ship products to customers as fast as inhumanly possible — to vastly improve operational efficiency. This is always the aim when companies adopt industrial automation, of course, but it comes with a downside: People tend to get worried about the robots.
Since long before the term “robot” was even coined, workers have been justifiably concerned that machines would pose a danger to them, whether to their livelihoods or their bodies. So companies tend to try to preempt both concerns by invoking a version of what’s become something of an industry-standard response: Robots and automation will do the so-called “3D jobs” — dull, dirty, and dangerous work that humans shouldn’t want to do anyway. (These have traditionally been jobs taken on by the working class, and were often historically union gigs.)
As such, companies doing the automating usually try to emphasize how much safer robots will make the workplace over how much they’re helping to ramp up production or to benefit its bottom line. This is neatly encapsulated in a CNN Business op-ed by the CEO of Boston Dynamics titled “Robots won’t take away our jobs. They will make work safer and more efficient.”
The carnage was the worst at facilities where Amazon had undertaken automation.
Amazon is making precisely the same case. Last year, its chief executive, Jeff Wilke, appeared on PBS’s Frontline to address working conditions at the company’s warehouses. Since 2012, he said, Amazon had added 200,000 robots to its fulfillment centers. “They make the job safer” he said, for Amazon’s human workers, 300,000 of which had been added to the company’s ranks in the same time period. The approach is a fairly effective means of winning positive media attention — stories abound about how effectively “humans and robots work side-by-side” in Amazon fulfillment centers. Also in…