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Is Amazon Pushing Its Warehouse Workers Too Hard?

Fast delivery can be taxing for Amazon workers.

The Feds are investigating possible safety issues and failure to disclose injuries at Amazon. Their findings could spell legal trouble for the company. One of the safety hazards allegedly involves an unrealistic pace of work, which resulted in physical injuries. Work pace is often tied to performance standards. Is Amazon guilty of setting an unrealistic work pace or is it unrealistic to assume that all employees can achieve the standards?

Video Spotlight: Authorities Launch Investigation into Working Conditions of Amazon Warehouses  (July 19, 2022, Good Morning America) 

This post is based on the NBC News article, Feds Investigating Workplace Safety at Amazon Warehouses, by T. Winter and P. Helsel, July 18, 2022, and the YouTube video in the Spotlight. Image source: Pressmaster/Shutterstock.

Discussion Questions:

1. What is productivity? What is the impact of work pace on employee productivity and overall performance?

Guidance:  Productivity is outputs divided by inputs. If employees use less time to scan and ship items, they can produce more output in the same amount of time which, in turn, increases productivity. At Amazon warehouses, a common metric used to assess performance is “time off task.”  That time indicates how long a worker has gone without scanning items. When time off task exceeds a certain amount, the worker is penalized. Accordingly, workers are incentivized to decrease their downtime, even avoiding bathroom breaks (see video). In theory, the fast pace increases productivity, thereby lowering the cost per item scanned and benefiting the company. However, a very fast pace may result in a higher error rate, which would effectively decrease productivity.

2. What are some of the factors impacting warehouse employees’ work pace?

Guidance: There are several factors affecting warehouse employees’ work pace. Some of these factors are mostly within their control (e.g., self-discipline, personal motivation, work ethic), but many are not. The latter include physical abilities and limitations, ergonomics, training and experience, software/hardware efficiency, work methods, working conditions, and design of the workspace. Worker safety is especially important in ensuring high productivity. Injuries slow down workers and increase absenteeism and turnover, which results in lower productivity and higher costs.

3. What are the techniques used to set a realistic work pace?

Guidance: Labor standards are supposed to reflect a realistic work pace. For standardized warehouse work, time studies, standard elemental times, and predetermined time standards are common methods to measure work, include allowances, and set realistic task and job times. To determine a reasonable “time off task,” (see question 1), ratio-delay studies may be used.

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