Amazon begins what is probably the best experiment on occupational security ever

The working conditions in the Amazon warehouse and the injuries suffered by workers were a constant source of tension between the corporate giant and its critics. A new safety and wellness program will be rolled out at all US locations by the end of the year as Jeff Bezos’ company continues to add large numbers of new employees.

CHRIS J RATCLIFFE | AFP | Getty Images

Amazon is known for its relentless nature. Can this corporate approach, which has led to so much success, be successfully applied to workplace injury prevention?

Amazon employees and the world are figuring out what could be the greatest experiment in safety culture in the workplace that has ever been conducted.

Amazon announced on Monday that WorkingWell, a program that offers employees physical, mental, and nutritional support, among other things, will be rolled out across the U.S. operations network by the end of the year. The goal is to reduce the number of reportable incidents – an OSHA measurement of worker injuries and illnesses – by 50% by 2025. The company, which has faced criticism of working conditions due to its size and customer demand, invests $ 300 million in safety projects annually, although it did not specifically split spending on that program as part of that budget.

WorkingWell isn’t entirely new to Amazon employees, and there are no plans to bring down the injury rate either. It was first piloted in 2019 and has already reached a large number of workers, 859,000 employees in 350 locations in North America and Europe.

In Amazon’s latest earnings report, released in late April, the company said it was expanding the program and setting the goal of reducing injuries, although it didn’t provide all the details. A company executive said never having offered all program components in all locations and hopes to reach 1,000 locations by the end of 2021 and then expand to Europe (where pilot locations exist) and beyond.

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“We want them to be healthy, safe and interested in Amazon and proud to work for them,” said Heather MacDougall, vice president, global health and safety at Amazon. Employee health and wellbeing “is not just a topic of conversation,” she said.

Amazon is adding new employees at a breakneck pace. The youngest employees include 75,000 workers in the United States and Canada. The retail, logistics, and tech giant hired large numbers of workers during Covid, more than 500,000 in 2020, and a common type of injury known as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) – which was discussed by Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon , recently wrote extensively in an annual letter to shareholders – is associated with new employees.

About 40% of work-related injuries on Amazon are MSDs, including sprains or strains caused by repetitive motion. Bezos noted in the letter that the program helped reduce injuries caused by MSD by 32% from 2019 to 2020. Highlighting the problem of workers and work culture, Bezos wrote, “If you read some of the news you might think we don’t have any.” Care for the employees. ”

According to John Dony, Senior Director at the National Safety Council, MSD risk exposure can and should be measured and reduced. “Just as coaches are now preventing pitchers from throwing too many pitches in baseball and addressing their risk of injury from mechanics, employers can also help prevent MSDs in the workplace by systematically measuring exposure to MSD risk factors and by systematically measuring exposure to MSD risk factors and assessing workplace and health problems Redesign work items to limit them. ” Exposure to these risk factors, “said Dony.

Body, Mind, and Wellbeing of an Amazon Worker

Program elements that will be added in all US locations include daily meetings for operations managers and small groups of employees near workplaces so they can watch short interactive videos on topics such as grasping and manipulating, pushing and pulling, and feeding. Amazon calls them “Health & Safety Huddles”.

Experts say there isn’t a lot of data on video training, but when skilled on-site professionals teach staff positioning to avoid injuries and spot checks on the floor, it has been shown to work and it has become more popular for warehouse operations to employ coaches in recent years.

Among the more than 6,000 security employees at Amazon are certified sports trainers, so-called injury prevention specialists, who usually work in separate wellness centers, but also in buildings that offer individual coaching with employees and ergonomic adjustments to the workstation, a spokeswoman said by email.

Hourly prompts at workplaces encourage employees to engage in physical and mental activities that should not last longer than 30 to 60 seconds. However, the company says it can decrease muscle and mental fatigue and reduce the risk of injury. Experts say stretching is key to injury prevention, although most popular workplace programs that are successful run sessions of at least five minutes several times per shift.

Amazon will set up special spa areas in buildings dedicated to activities like volunteer stretching and incorporating interactive videos. Other aspects of the WorkingWell program include videos on mindfulness practices such as meditation, which will be available at interactive kiosks, as well as promoting healthier eating options and making them available to employees.

“We made hundreds of changes based on employee feedback,” said MacDougall of the new program, which will include a WorkingWell mobile app that is currently being developed to provide access to home wellness education and training.

Some Amazon ideas aren’t new, but the scale is new

Occupational safety experts say many of the elements of the new Amazon program are common features of workplace culture where safety is a priority. In many ways, it is the sheer size of the effort that stands out and can provide scientists and professionals with a source of data on workplace injury prevention on a new scale.

“I don’t know of any company with so many people doing this type of work at the same time,” said Deborah Roy, president of the American Society of Safety Professionals and former director of health, safety and wellness for LL Bean. “Just by the sheer numbers, there is a good chance that we can learn from their implementation if they collect data well and do comparisons in a controlled manner. … But we need to see the data published.”

Amazon said it was working with universities on research into workplace safety, including understanding the mechanisms behind MSD injuries, and it was working with health and safety experts, but an Amazon spokeswoman turned down formal plans for sharing of research to work out even though she said so is something the company is contemplating for the future.

I am not aware of any company with so many workers doing this type of work at once.

Deborah Roy

President of the American Society of Safety Professionals

New employees who are not conditioned to do their jobs may be the most susceptible to MSDs. However, as the largest tenant in the US, Amazon also faces the problem of an aging workforce that needs to be kept healthy in a tight and shrinking job market. “They want to take the time and spend the money upfront on new employees, get them to do the job right, and help them position themselves better,” said Roy, but added that existing, older employees ” If you do not.” If you don’t support this workforce, you won’t have new young people to take their place. We just don’t have volume in many parts of the country. “

Some of the technology-driven injury prevention ideas that Bezos outlined in the letter, such as algorithms that can rotate employees through jobs, continued to be used in a pilot phase, but are not part of this program. The company is also researching sensors that can be used to measure the risk of MSDs. “We have a lot of different pilots in this area … trying to figure out what works best and where they can be expanded,” said MacDougall. She added that technologies developed to reduce MSDs in the Amazon workplace and in partnership with universities will ultimately “be passed on” to others.

Claims that Amazon has a high rate of work-related accidents have continued over the years, especially during times of high demand like the upcoming Prime Day. Amazon has also fought in the court system to keep some infringement records confidential. The company also recently faced a union formation vote at an Alabama site, in which union officials said injuries were a factor in helping their efforts.

A reduction in accidents at work by 50% is possible

Jeffrey Ku, an hourly Amazon employee provided to CNBC who holds the position of inbound stow and has piloted various aspects of the training program at “DEN2,” one of its Denver facilities, said he had no injury in his team In the six months he was responsible for training.

“Fifty percent is doable,” said Roy. “There have been many organizations that have been able to do this. It is a focus and must be a value in this company.”

While it may seem like a high bar, according to OSHA’s own published studies, companies with the right safety management system should be able to reduce injury rates by 52%.

Roy saw the change firsthand and oversaw an inventory program that increased the operations of 12 out of 100 injured manual laborers to zero injuries over a two-year period. “It is to their advantage to address these issues,” she said. “The support of these people contributes to business results and productivity.”

Having offered “a lot of training for new hires,” Ku has found the short videos and even the shortest pauses to reset helpful. “I’m very adamant about safety, security, security,” he said.

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