Sen. Bernie Sanders has lit a fuse that is igniting questions about workplace safety and working conditions at Amazon warehouses.
The independent Vermont senator and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — or HELP — sent a letter to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy this week initiating an inquiry into the safety record at Amazon’s warehouses and the company’s treatment of workers who are injured on the job.
“Amazon is one of the most valuable companies in the world owned by Jeff Bezos, one of the richest men in the world,” Sanders wrote in an announcement of the investigation. “Amazon should be the safest place in America to work, not one of the most dangerous.”
Amazon spokesperson Steve Kelly responded that the company strongly disagrees with the assertions in the letter.
Picking on Seattle for Product Picking and Union Picketing
Sanders and the HELP Committee opened a similar probe into Starbucks earlier this year to investigate the Seattle-based coffee giant’s compliance with labor law after allegations of union busting. Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz testified before the Senate committee in March, where he denied the allegations and said Starbucks would abide by the law and respect workers’ right to unionize.
Regarding Amazon, Sanders and the committee are focused on worker safety. Sanders is demanding Amazon provide information about the injury and turnover rates at its warehouses, the alleged connection between the pace of work and injury rates at its facilities and the medical care provided at Amazon’s on-site clinics.
Sanders criticized Amazon for spending in other parts of the company while failing to focus on worker safety. He pointed specifically to \
Amazon has said it plans to invest $550 million in safety initiatives this year, adding to the $1 billion it committed to safety from 2019 to 2022.
Is Warehouse Product Picking a Job for Humans, Robots or Both?
Federal safety inspectors have concluded that the twisting, bending and long reaches that Amazon warehouse workers perform as much as nine times per minute put them at high risk for lower back injuries and other musculoskeletal disorders. The risks they faced are related to the following: High frequency with which employees must lift packages and other items. In 2022, the serious injury rate at Amazon warehouses was 6.6 injuries per 100 workers. At other non-Amazon warehouses, that rate was 3.2.
Amazon uses both humans and robots to pick products in its warehouses. The company has more than 200,000 mobile robots working alongside hundreds of thousands of human workers.
Robots bring racks of products to humans to pick and box up. The company also uses robots to pick orders from shelves, pack them into boxes, and move them around warehouses.
Amazon’s latest warehouse robot, Sparrow, is the first robotic system in its warehouses that can detect, select, and handle individual products. The robotic arm uses AI and computer vision to recognize and handle millions of items.
Amazon says that the health and safety of its employees is its number one priority. The company has taken many proactive measures to keep its employees safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Amazon safety committee inspects equipment, facilities, and work processes to ensure they meet safety standards. The committee also performs employee safety training, like how to properly use safety equipment, emergency procedures, and best practices for avoiding workplace hazards. [24×7]
Some reporting by Lauren Rosenblatt for The Seattle Times