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Amazon enhances warehouse safety focus

16 June 2021

The giant online retailer has unveiled its European Operations Innovation Lab, designed to enhance the employee experience through the development of advanced technologies that support safer ways of working.

The technologies being developed by the Lab follow the successful implementation of more than 350,000 drive units across the world. The mobile drive units and four-sided yellow shelving towers – which were first implemented by Amazon in 2012 and came to Europe in 2014 – are now commonplace at Amazon facilities, supporting employees by bringing items to them, reducing the amount of walking required. Robotic Pallet Movers have also been introduced to enhance the employee experience and wellbeing by removing the need to carry heavy loads and reduce the need for repetitive tasks. Now the company is working on new technologies with similarly beneficial properties.

Based in Vercelli, Northern Italy, the Lab brings together a high-tech collection of the company’s latest innovations for Amazon Operations – the company’s supply chain and logistics arm. Since introducing the first robotics technologies almost ten years ago, Amazon has created more than one million new roles. In the UK alone, Amazon employs 45,000 people, with many working at Amazon Operations, helping pick, pack and ship customer orders.

The Lab focuses on testing and developing future technologies to help enhance safety in its facilities in Europe while also supporting employees in their daily work. The new support technologies include:

  • ITEM SORTERS: A fully-automated single-item sortation system that reduces muscle strain by removing the need for an employee to rummage through a tote (a large box) to look for items.
  • PALLET MOVERS: A large robotic arm that eliminates the need to use forklifts to carry pallets, and automatically moves multiple items from one location to another.
  • TOTE RETRIEVERS: A machine that lifts totes and places them on conveyors automatically.
  • AUTOMATED GUIDED VEHICLES: Support robots - similar to Amazon Drive Units - that seamlessly drive around the site carrying items for people, reducing the amount of walking required and alleviating the need from employees to push and pull carts and totes. These robots have sensors and follow pre-programmed routes to avoid bumping in to people or machinery.
  • ROBOT SORTERS: Smaller robotic arms that eliminate repetitious tasks for employees, such as lifting, stacking, and turning, allowing employees to focus on the kind of work robots can’t do.

Amazon confirmed that its new Operations site in Doncaster would be the next area where Tote Retrievers, Item Sorters and pallet Movers would be deployed later this year.

Automated Guided Vehicles have already been deployed for use in Italy, and are being implemented also in Poland and the UK; Tote Retrievers are being rolled out in Poland and the UK; Item Sorters and Pallet Movers are in use in Italy, Spain, Germany, Poland and the UK; and Robot Sorters are used in Italy, Spain, Germany, and will be deployed in Poland, France and the UK later this year.

Stefano La Rovere, Head of EU Advanced Technology at Amazon who leads the scientists and engineers at the Lab, said: “We work closely with health and safety experts and scientists, conduct thousands of safety inspections each day in our buildings, and have made hundreds of changes as a result of employee feedback on how we can improve their well-being at work. As soon as we deploy a new technology and train our people, the ongoing feedback from our employees helps us refine and improve, with our people at the heart of helping develop the right technology for their part of the business.”

Tackling MSDs

Amazon is committed to leading the way for workplaces around the world to proactively manage—and prevent—work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) by drawing on expertise in innovation and technology, and collaborating with proven thought leaders and scientists. MSDs are common in the type of work done in warehouse operations and are more likely to occur during an employee’s first six months. Amazon’s increased attention to early MSD prevention is already achieving results. From 2019 to 2020, overall MSDs decreased by 32% and MSDs resulting in time away from work decreased by more than half.

Amazon is expanding its workplace health and safety program WorkingWell with the aim of cutting recordable incident rates by 50% by 2025. WorkingWell is currently available to 859,000 employees at 350 sites across North America and Europe. Through the program, small groups of employees are coached on body mechanics, proactive wellness, and safety. In addition to reducing workplace injuries, these concepts have a positive impact on regular day-to-day activities and have contributed to reducing MSD recordable incident rates.