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12/10/2018 / By Isabelle Z.
An unfortunate “robot mishap” was behind a bear repellant spray incident at an Amazon warehouse that sent dozens of workers to the hospital.
The accident comes at a time when many Amazon warehouse workers are already on edge as they see robots increasingly taking over their tasks and threatening their jobs, and now they have a whole new reason to be wary of the machines.
The incident occurred last week at a New Jersey Amazon warehouse when a robot punctured a nine-ounce aerosol can of bear repellent. Fifty workers were sickened, 24 workers were hospitalized, and one was intubated and placed in intensive care in critical condition. According to a statement from Amazon, other employees were treated on scene. Many of the complaints involved breathing problems and burning in the throat and eyes.
The bear repellent contained highly concentrated capsaicin, which is a form of pepper spray. Some experts say that bear spray isn’t quite as incapacitating as the pepper spray made to be used on humans, but it is very irritating nevertheless. According to the BBC, however, bear spray can cause people to have a temporary but nearly total loss of vision and restrict their breathing severely.
The Retail Wholesale and Department Store union had harsh words for Amazon, who it says repeatedly places its workers’ lives at risk. Union President Stuart Appelbaum said: “Amazon’s automated robots put humans in life-threatening danger today, the effects of which could be catastrophic and the long-term effects for 80 plus workers are unknown.”
He added that the union won’t back down until the firm is held accountable for this and many other “dangerous labor practices.”
The Robbinsville fulfilment center employs more than 3,000 people and spans 1.3 million square feet; the fumes were confined to the south wing on the third floor of the facility.
Amazon has been the subject of some damning reports about the way it treats its employees. Last year, it emerged that some warehouse workers were falling asleep on the job from exhaustion, urinating into bottles to avoid sanctions for taking bathroom breaks, and sleeping in the parking lot to avoid punishment for arriving late. Workers say they are paid less than the living wage and subjected to excessively long shifts and nearly impossible production goals. The company also took flak for patenting a wristband that will track employees’ movements.
The firm did not do itself any favors when it was caught paying employees to say positive things about working for Amazon on Twitter. The employee accounts in question posted positive comments about their working conditions, benefits and pay in hopes of counteracting some of the negative press they have been getting.
Robots can make quick work of warehouse tasks, but they are not without their downfalls. As bad as this incident was for those who were affected, it could have been much worse. In 2015, a robot at a Volkswagen production facility grabbed a worker and crushed him up against a metal plate. He died at the hospital from complications due to his injuries. Other employees reported the robot did this despite being within the metal safety cage used to separate it from humans.
The benefits of using robots in warehouses like Amazon’s are numerous. However, while managers are quick to applaud the machines for being more dependable than human workers, it’s important to keep in mind that there is a lot of potential for damage when things go wrong. Pepper spraying a few dozen employees may not have a lasting impact, but the incident serves as a reminder of the serious damage that can occur when work is entrusted to machines.
Sources for this article include: