By Eric Rosenbaum, CNBC
Amazon is well known for its relentless nature. Can that corporate approach that has resulted in so much bottom-line success be applied successfully to workplace injury prevention?
Amazon workers, and the world, are about to find out in what could be the largest experiment in workplace safety culture ever undertaken.
Amazon announced Monday that WorkingWell, a program that provides employees with physical, mental and nutritional support, among other wellness services, will be rolled out across the entire U.S. operations network by year-end. The aim is cutting recordable incident rates — an OSHA measurement of worker injury and illness — by 50% by 2025. The company, which has faced criticism over worker conditions as its size and customer demand have grown, is investing $300 million in safety projects this year, though it did not break out spending on this program specifically as part of that budget.
WorkingWell is not entirely new to Amazon employees, and neither is the plan to cut injury rates. It was first piloted in 2019 and has already reached a huge number of workers, 859,000 employees at 350 sites in North America and Europe.
In Amazon’s most recent earnings report released in late April, the company indicated it was going to expand the program and set the injury reduction target, though it did not offer full details. A company executive says it has never offered all of the program components at all sites, and it hopes to reach 1,000 sites by the end of 2021, and after that, extend to Europe (where pilot sites do exist), and beyond.
“We want them to be healthy and safe and feel cared about and proud to work for Amazon,” said Heather MacDougall, vice president of worldwide workplace health and safety at Amazon. Employee health and wellness “is not just a talking point,” she said.
Amazon is adding new workers at a furious pace. Its latest hiring spree includes 75,000 workers in the U.S. and Canada. The retail, logistics and technology giant added a massive number of workers during Covid, more than 500,000 in 2020, and a common type of injury called musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) — which Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wrote on extensively in a recent annual letter to shareholders — is associated with new employees.
About 40% of work-related injuries at Amazon are MSDs, which include sprains or strains caused by repetitive motions. Bezos noted in the letter that the program helped decrease MSD-related injuries by 32% from 2019 to 2020. Highlighting the issue of workers and workplace culture, Bezos wrote, “If you read some of the news reports, you might think we have no care for employees.”
MSD risk exposure can and should be measured and reduced, according to John Dony, senior director at the National Safety Council. “Just as coaches now limit pitchers in baseball from throwing too many pitches and address their risk for injury through mechanics, so too can employers help prevent workplace MSDs by systemically measuring the exposures to the MSD risk factors and redesigning the workplace and work tasks to limit exposures to these risk factors,” Dony said.
The body, mind and wellness of an Amazon worker
Among the program elements being added to all U.S. sites are daily meetings for operations leaders and small groups of employees near work stations so they can watch short interactive videos on topics like gripping and handling, pushing and pulling, and nutrition. Amazon calls them “Health & Safety Huddles.”
Experts say there isn’t a great deal of data on video training, but when there are qualified professionals on site teaching employees positioning that prevents injury, and spot checking on the floor, it has been proven to work, and it has become more popular for warehouse operations to employ trainers in recent years.
Among Amazon’s more than 6,000 safety employees are certified athletic trainers called injury prevention specialists who typically work in separate wellness centers, but also work in buildings providing one-on-one coaching with employees, and workstation ergonomic adjustments, a spokeswoman said via email.
Hourly prompts at workstations will ask employees to complete physical and mental activities — which may last no longer than 30-60 seconds — but the company says can reduce muscle and mental fatigue, and reduce injury risk. Experts say stretching is a key to injury prevention, though most common workplace programs that are successful dedicate sessions of at least five minutes, multiple times a shift.
Amazon will have dedicated wellness spaces within buildings devoted to activities like voluntary stretching and incorporating interactive videos. Other aspects of the WorkingWell program include videos covering mindfulness practices, such as meditation, which will be available at interactive kiosks, and promoting healthier eating options and making them available to employees.
“We made hundreds of changes as a result of employee feedback,” MacDougall said of the new program, which will include a WorkingWell mobile app currently being designed to provide at-home access to education and training on wellness.
Some Amazon ideas not new, but the scale is novel
Workplace safety experts say that many of the elements in the new Amazon program are common features of workplace culture where safety is a priority. In many respects, it is the sheer size of the effort that stands out and may offer the scientific and professional communities a source of data on workplace injury prevention on a new scale.
“I am not aware of any company with this many workers doing this kind of work all at once,” said Deborah Roy, president of the American Society of Safety Professionals and former head of health, safety and wellness at L.L. Bean. “Just because of sheer numbers, if they do a good job collecting data and doing comparisons in a more controlled way, there is a good possibility we can learn from their implementation. … But we need to see the published data.”
Amazon said it is working with universities on workplace safety research, including understanding the mechanics behind MSD injuries, and it is working with safety and industrial health experts, but an Amazon spokeswoman declined to elaborate on any formal plans to share research, though she said it is something the company is thinking about for the future.
New employees not conditioned to do the work may be the most prone to MSDs, but as the largest hirer in the U.S., Amazon also faces the issue of an aging workforce that needs to be kept healthy in a tight, and shrinking, labor market. “You want to take the time and spend the money upfront on new workers, getting them to do the job the right way and helping them to better position themselves,” Roy said, but she added of existing, older employees, “If you don’t support that workforce, you won’t have new young people to take their place, we just don’t have volume in many parts of country.”
Some of the technology-driven ideas to prevent injuries 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 looking at sensors that can measures risk exposure to MSDs. “We have many different pilots going on in this area … to figure out what works best and where to expand them,” MacDougall said. She added that technology being developed to reduce MSDs in the Amazon workplace, and in conjunction with universities, will ultimately be “taken out to others.”
Claims that Amazon has high rates of workplace injury have persisted over the years, especially during periods of peak demand, such as the upcoming Prime Day. Amazon also has fought in the court system to keep some injury records confidential. The company also recently faced — though in the end prevailed over — a vote to unionize at an Alabama operations site, where union reps say injuries were a factor in support for their effort.
Reducing work injuries by 50% is possible
An Amazon hourly employee made available to CNBC, Jeffrey Ku, who holds the position of inbound stow and has piloted several aspects of the training program at “DEN2,” one of its Denver facilities, said he hasn’t had an injury on his team in the six months he has been in charge of the training.
“Fifty percent is doable,” Roy said. “There have been lots of organizations that have been able to do it. It is a focus issue and has to be a value in that company.”
While it may seem like a high bar, OSHA’s own published research says companies with the correct safety management system in place should be able to see a 52% reduction in the injury rate.
Roy has seen the change firsthand, overseeing a warehouse program that took the operation from a rate of 12 out of 100 workers being injured doing manual labor to zero injuries over a two-year time frame. “It is to their advantage to address these issues,” she said. “Supporting these individuals helps the bottom line of the company and productivity.”
Ku, who has been providing “a lot of training to new hires,” has found that the short videos and even the briefest of breaks to reset do help. “I am very adamant about safety, safety, safety,” he said.