In Depth

Are Amazon’s warehouse robots a threat to its workers?

Accident in New Jersey puts new focus on retailer’s warehouse working conditions

Twenty-four workers in an Amazon warehouse in the US were hospitalised on Wednesday morning after a robot punctured a can of bear spray.

The incident occurred at around 8.50am local time after the aerosol can containing concentrated capsaicin, a compound in chilli peppers, was struck by an “automated machine” on the warehouse’s third floor, according to The Washington Post.

Fifty-four workers who “were exposed to the bear repellent experienced difficulty breathing and burning in the throat and eyes”, local news website NJ.com reports, while 24 workers were taken to nearby hospitals.

A spokesperson for Amazon said: “All of the impacted employees have been or are expected to be released from hospital within the next 24 hours. The safety of our employees is always our top priority and a full investigation is already under way.”

Amazon has faced numerous calls to improve their health and safety standards after a number of damaging investigations into labour practices at their facilities.

This particular accident “comes with an added dystopian layer, since it was caused by one of the robots Amazon hopes will replace many of its human warehouse workers in the near future”, says Wired.

As robots have become more common in factories and warehouses around the world, “there have been several high-profile accidents involving humans”, says Motherboard. In 2015, a German worker in a Volkswagen production plant was grabbed by a robot and crushed against a metal plate, The Daily Telegraph reports.

This is not the first accident caused by bear repellant at an Amazon warehouse. In 2015, the fire department “responded to an accident at an Amazon facility in Haslet, Texas, that was caused by a robot running over a can of none other than bear repellent”, says Wired. In fact one employee at an Amazon warehouse in Indiana told the tech website that a can ruptured in his facility earlier this year too.

In April The US National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a labour advocacy group, announced in August that Amazon topped its annual “Dirty Dozen” list highlighting companies that it believes put workers especially at risk because of unsafe labour practices. The organisation counted seven deaths that have occurred at US Amazon facilities since 2013, including three at separate locations in the span of five weeks in 2017.

In the UK, ambulances were called more than 600 times to Amazon facilities in the past three years, according to Freedom of Information requests filed by the the trade union GMB. An investigation by The Guardian found that some Amazon workers have suffered injuries that left them unable to work, and in some cases, homeless.

Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the US Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said: “Amazon’s automated robots put humans in life-threatening danger. This is another outrageous example of the company putting profits over the health and safety of their workers, and we cannot stand for this. The richest company in the world cannot continue to be let off the hook for putting hard working people’s lives at risk.”

Rachael Lighty, a spokesperson for Amazon, told Gizmodo: “The safety of our employees is always our top priority and a full investigation is already underway.”  

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