Amazon is testing robots that it claims will cut down on worker injuries at its warehouses — a nagging problem that was recently highlighted by CEO Jeff Bezos.
The robots –nicknamed Bert, Ernie, Kermit and Scooter — can pick up boxes and move them throughout the vast facilities “to reduce the need for employees to reach up or bend down when retrieving items — and thus limit more strenuous movements,” according to a blog post Amazon posted on Sunday.
Ernie, for one, will take boxes off of a shelf with a robotic arm to deliver it to employees, so they can “remain in a more comfortable, stable and ergonomically friendly position,” according to the post.
The initiative is part of a $300 million investment Amazon’s Jeff Bezos outlined in his final annual shareholder letter as chief executive in April when he acknowledged that the company “needs to do a better job for our employees.”
About 40 percent of the injuries at Amazon warehouses — where Amazon employs 6,200 “safety professionals” – are related to repetitive work, Bezos said in his shareholder letter. In May, the company announced a goal of reducing the number of employees’ injuries by 50 percent by 2025.
Criticism of Amazon’s workplace practices reached a climax this spring during a bruising labor battle at its Bessemer, Ala.- warehouse. In response to Amazon’s robot announcement on Monday, the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union’s president Stuart Appelbaum said that “Amazon has been called out all over the world for its unacceptable safety record.”
“If Amazon were truly concerned about the health and safety of its employees, it needs to reduce the unbearable pace of work which has resulted in countless documented physical and mental injuries,” Appelbaum said. “Amazon has thus far failed to understand that its human employees are people and not robots.”
Amazon, meanwhile, insists that the robots are not aimed at replacing workers.
“Since Amazon began using robotics in its facilities in 2012, we’ve added more than 1 million jobs worldwide while simultaneously deploying 350,000 mobile drive unit robots,” according to the post.
In most Amazon fulfillment center, employees currently pick and stow items onto mobile shelves as products move through the assembly line. The robots would potentially eliminate the need for employees to perform those tasks.
“The innovation with a robot like Ernie is interesting because while it doesn’t make the process go any faster, we’re optimistic, based on our testing, it can make our facilities safer for employees, ” Kevin Keck, worldwide director of Advanced Technology at Amazon said in the post.
The robot named Bert is meant to transport items across the warehouses and can be “summoned” by employees to pick up boxes that need to be moved.
The other two robots, Scooter and Kermit, are designed to transport carts. Scooter is slated to be deployed in one of Amazon’s facilities later this year while Kermit is “further along in development” and will be introduced to more than a dozen facilities in North America this year, according to the post.