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Delivering safety - the Amazon way

Rob Burnett, Amazon's Regional Health and Safety Manager, ensures robots and humans work in harmony, and contribute to a safe working environment

From a garage-based online bookseller 25 year’s ago; Amazon has rapidly expanded its range of products and geographical reach to become the world’s top ecommerce platform with more than 100 million users.

Its operations span the globe, including the UK where it has a sizeable presence with 21 fulfillment centres, which, at peak times such as Black Friday and the run up to Christmas, can employ up to 25,000 people. Not surprisingly, as one of the world’s four ‘tech giants’, Amazon employs state-of-the-art technology to help deliver products across the globe and this has resulted in the increasing use of ‘robots’ in its vast arena-sized fulfilment centres.

While this technology brings enormous efficiencies in the storage, location and retrieval of items, it also brings health and safety challenges to ensure robots and humans work in harmony, and contribute to a safe working environment.

The man charged with making sure this happens in the UK is Rob Burnett, its Regional Health and Safety Manager.

Rob, who is also part of Amazon’s EU Safety team, started his career stacking shelves in his local Tesco in 1995 while studying at college. He became the In Store Safety Rep, which started his passion for health and safety, and has since worked in a series of warehouse and delivery-related businesses in this role over the past 20 years. During this time he has become experienced in all aspects of health and safety issues, but he will never forget his first visit to an Amazon robot-controlled fulfillment centre in New York after he joined the company in 2013.

He said: “I was blown away to see this technology in action and I’m still excited about it now, especially as it’s being installed in more of our UK operations. It’s vital for our future growth and success.”

Another aspect that impressed Rob when he joined Amazon was the organisation’s commitment to health and safety, which was particularly emphasised in his first week’s induction programme at Amazon’s European headquarters in Luxembourg.

He said: “For the first few days I didn't learn anything about my job, or what I was going to do. The programme was focused on the ethics of Amazon and one of those days out of the four was dedicated to safety, your responsibilities and how you ensure that safety comes first in everything that you do,  It builds on the tenent of Amazon’s safety expectations. So, if you're a manager and you have an accident on your site, you complete an investigation of the incident before the end of the shift, and you get your supporting documentation done within 24 hours, that’s the golden rule."

Rob’s team is divided into three regions with each fulfillment centre having four to six employees with a direct responsibility for health and safety. One of first jobs of each shift is to hold a meeting where the daily safety tip is discussed.

He said: “It’s a simple idea and helps everyone focus on safety before they start their day’s work. It could be specific to the work environment, such as not running from a break to a workstation, or more general, such as tips on how to make yourself safe on a frosty morning before coming to work.  We encourage everyone to consider safety in every single aspect of what they do, and to always consider how this contributes to the efficient delivery of goods to our customers, and ultimately the customer experience.

Driving safety engagement is a big part of our focus as a team through our training and reviewing processes. Our approach is to attack the process, we don’t attack the person. If someone has an accident we look at the training and to see if somewhere our training failed. And we do this whenever we have something that is OSHA recordable or potentially OSHA recordable. We will do a deep investigation and from this create actions which we will share with our health and safety team across the world.”

While Rob was well aware of the health and safety issues associated with warehouse work, such as manual handling, integrating health and safety practices to include robots into the mix was a new challenge.

He said: “In the older fulfillment centres our employees move through the product storage units like you would do in a supermarket choosing products through the aisles. However, in the newer fulfilment centres, the robots actually bring the shelves of items to the associate to pick and pack.”

The robots are small, squat automated mobile platforms that can negotiate the vast warehouse space to locate a specific product shelf unit, known as a pod. The robot inserts itself under the pod and then lifts it up so it can transport it to a human operative who will remove the item and send it on to packing.

Amazon has seven robot automated fulfillment centres in the UK – Tilbury, Bristol, Kegworth, Dunstable and three in Manchester – and with more new centres planned in the coming years Rob has been working with Amazon’s technical teams to developed new technologies to help manage the interaction of humans and robots.

Rob said: “99.9% of the time technology is fantastic, but we have to take into account for that 0.01% that could go wrong. So we had to look at what additional safety controls and interfaces we could put in place to protect our people.”

The robot platforms move about the centre on dedicated pathways delineated by floor markings which employees are not allowed to enter. The pathways have sensors embedded into the floor to notify the robots where they are in the building and to also identify where it needs to go in terms of picking up a pod, and to take it to the picker for packing. Rob said the worst-case scenario is where an item falls out of one of the pods, and is left lying on the robot pathway floor. The robots are designed to avoid anything in front of it, but someone will be required to go and pick the dropped item up.

He said: “Originally, the robots were controlled from an Amazon Kindle which could give the message to the robots not to use a certain pathway that had a dropped item on it. This allowed responders, who are trained to walk that pathway, to pick up the item and walk away.”

But what if the Kindle battery ran out half way through this process – the 0.01% risk?

This conundrum resulted in the development of the Cebrus vest, a high-viz vest that is fitted with sensors that can alert a robot to the presence of a human.

Rob said: “It’s like Moses parting the Red Sea. It's a great piece of tech that you can put that on and walk safely on the floor, as the robots will just avoid you. It's like an invisible force field.  We need to keep redesigning and looking at how we can build different kind of mechanisms in place to keep our people safe while reducing repetitive tasks that can be carried out by technology.”

With further work underway on developing other geospatial technologies to ensure safe interactions between people and robotics, Rob’s next challenge is to tackle the issue of mental health.

He said: “Health and safety is not just about physical injury, I believe it's also about the mental state of people too.  We are going to need to tweak the health and safety job description. Ten years ago it was purely ‘health and safety’, five years ago it became ‘environmental health and safety’ so now I think we will have to think about including wellbeing within health and safety as well."

“We know mental health is a big issue now and that it is growing. But while people are getting increasingly more confident about talking about it, I don't think industry's quite ready yet to deal with it.  We've got something in place at the moment that helps managers to have a conversation with an employee who may be struggling with mental health issues and to explore different options to support them, such as different shifts or time off, as well as signposting them to professional support. This is a something that I will be working on with my team next year because I believe this is an important issue.”

Another health and safety area Rob will focus on next year will be vehicle movement around the fulfilment centre docking areas where drivers offload new stock and received items for delivery. This was brought into close focus in mid November when Amazon’s Doncaster facility was affected by the flooding that devastated parts of northern England.

He said: “We also have responsibility for managing risk, such as enacting our business continuity plans when one of its centres is affected. The delivery dock area was flooded, so, as there were more pressing demands on pumping equipment in the local area and there was no risk to life, deliveries were moved to other sites.”

His interest in reviewing health and safety measures in the vehicle docking area of the centres is not influenced by a specific event, but on his enthusiasm for technology, and the new tools that are available to him through Amazon.

He said: “We haven’t had an issue in terms of health and safety, but there are new technologies we can apply which will help make the overall operation safer. For example, there is vehicle scanning technology that can help with organise vehicle movements and, because we have drivers arriving from all over Europe, we’ve got a plan to deploy Amazon Echo devices to help relay operational instructions in different languages.

“Safety is the number one metric at Amazon, and it’s always the first thing we look at in any kind of business development or review. That’s why we are keen to build in additional design and technology into our health and safety measures. It’s like we are always learning.”

And the next challenge? Rob commented about the use of drones through Amazon Prime Air: “I don’t know what stage Amazon is at with this but I know drones will be introduced at some point. There are obviously health and safety challenges with this technology but I think the main issue will be the attitude of the general public and managing their perceptions about interacting with this technology.”

Amazon recently made headlines after a Sunday Times report that highlighted that fact that ambulances were called to an Amazon warehouse in the UK once very two days to assist employees with medical conditions.

Rob said that the company has long refuted the claims and he now invites journalists in to tour the fulfillment centres to see the spacious and relaxed working conditions themselves.  He said: “If someone writes a negative article will invite them in, and we will walk them around and show them that perception they've got isn't true. We've even opened our doors to the general public and so far have organised free tours for more than 200,000 people. People are curious and they absolutely love it

In reply to the Sunday Times’ story, a spokesperson for the company said: "Amazon is a safe place to work.  We benchmark against UK national data, published by the Health and Safety Executive, confirming we have over 40 per cent fewer injuries, on average, than other transportation and warehousing businesses in the UK.  At UK fulfilment centres, ambulance calls occurred at a rate of 0.000003 per worked hour, which is dramatically low."

 

Amazon approach to health and safety in numbers:

12: the average number hours of health and safety training each employee received last year in the UK across its fulfilment centres.

100: the number of health and safety professionals across its UK network who are working to ensure the safest working environment possible.

260: the number of meetings that start each shift, every day, across the entire UK fulfilment centre network with a safety tip.

400: the number of qualified first-aiders working across its fulfilment centres in the UK.

238,000: the total number of hours of health and safety training to given to staff working across our fulfilment centres last year in the UK alone.

£13.6 million: the amount spent last year on capital investments directly related to safety improvements in its fulfilment centres in the UK.

 

Thanks to Rob Burnett, UK Regional Health and Safety Manager at Amazon who was interviewed for the final issue of Insight in December 2019.