Dec 15, 2020 - 3:45pm

Amazon Ramps Up Testing, High-Tech Tools to Prevent Spread of COVID-19 Among Workforce

Health and safety precautions brought on the by the pandemic have forced companies to completely change the ways in which their employees work. For Amazon, with more than 1 million employees worldwide, tactics for keeping its workforce safe have ranged from the basic protocols of mask-wearing and social distancing, to high-tech tools like augmented reality and thermal cameras.

The U.S. Chamber talked with Heather MacDougall, Vice President of Worldwide Workplace Health and Safety at Amazon, about the innovative technologies the company is using to keep employees safe and maintain business operations through the pandemic. What follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Read more from the Business is... series for Other ways the business community is stepping up in times of need.

Q. What are some tactics and programs that Amazon has found particularly impactful in keeping employees safe? 

Nothing's more important than the health and safety of our employees. Amazon has invested more than $961 million in protective equipment and safety measures like temperature screening, installing plexiglass, and providing voluntary COVID-19 testing on site.  

More than 150 significant process changes have been implemented to make sure that we're keeping our team safe every day. That includes things like social distancing measures, supplying masks and hand sanitizer, staggering the start and stop of shifts and breaks, changing the format of training, and enhanced cleaning and sanitizing across our sites. We've also built out our own lab so we can conduct our own testing on frontline employees.   

Particularly impactful has been simply following the guidance of federal and local health authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. Social distancing and mask-wearing measures are the most effective measures that Amazon or any employer can make. 

Q. How is Amazon using the latest technology innovations to improve workplace safety? 

One of the things that we first did was retrofit our internal camera system that’s integrated in our fulfillment center network to audit social distancing and assess where it is most challenging. From there, our engineers developed an augmented reality tool we call “Distance Assistance,” where on a 50-inch monitor employees can see their physical distance from others in real time. If you have more than six feet of distance around you, a green circle shows up around you on screen. If you get close to six feet, the circle turns yellow, and it turns red when you have less than six feet.

This is really helpful in areas like coming out of break rooms where there's a natural tendency to want to get close to people and be social with your colleagues. One of the exciting things about it is that it’s open sourced, so businesses large and small can download the package at no cost and get their own Distance Assistant up and running with just a computer and a camera.

Q. Not every business has the resources of a company like Amazon. What are some things that businesses of all sizes could do?  

We realize that not everyone has the same access to technology, scientists, or experts like we do. That's why we do look for ways to share our resources. However, the fundamentals of enforcing social distancing and having a mandatory mask policy are things that anyone can do – and they are so important.  

The other thing that everyone can do is training and education on the importance of these safety measures, and then following up with auditing to make sure that the policies are being implemented. Also, seek the engagement of employees. It's really helpful to have them to tell you how you're doing so you can learn about where there are concerns or areas needing improvement. 

Q. Tell us more about Amazon’s efforts around testing its employees. What about a plan for vaccinating employees? 

Since March, we've invested hundreds of millions of dollars to build a world-class, on-site testing lab, and we're now testing tens of thousands of our employees each day across hundreds of sites. It’s totally voluntary, for anyone who wants to get tested. And these are all asymptomatic employees so we're helping to identify employees before they have symptoms to get them isolated and avoid the transmission of COVID-19 in our work sites. We are constantly looking at the data to learn from it.

For vaccines, we have a task force that's looking into it, working with health experts and agencies, and meeting almost every day. We're trying to think through these issues just like many other employers are doing right now. I don't know exactly what it's going to look like for Amazon or for any employer, but it's a topic that everyone's talking about. 

Q. How is Amazon educating and communicating the importance of health and safety protocols to employees? 

Something that we've learned as we've gone along is that helping to educate your employees and communicate the importance of safety measures is not only important for our sites, but for when they're at home and in the community, too.  

We have two campaigns: Safe at Work and Safe at Home. As part of the Safe at Home campaign Amazon launched educational videos, with some specifically for families with children, and they are some of the highest-viewed videos out of all our internal communications. We're placing them on YouTube so that others can use them as well.  

We're seeing how important it is to communicate and engage with our employees during this time, whether that’s figuring out how employees can clock in and out from their phone to reduce crowding around the time clock, or just pushing out communications through an app to communicate with our employees daily. 

Q. What measures do you think will stay as part of the new norm, to safeguard businesses beyond COVID? 

Some of these measures will stay with us after the pandemic. I think back to 9-11, and how a lot of measures that were put in place continue to stay with us today. For example, things like temperature screenings or our thermal cameras we may keep in place—maybe not year-round, but they could continue to serve us well during flu season or should we have some other pandemic again.  

The other thing that I’ll say is how our teams at Amazon are working even closer together now. The relationships that have been furthered during this time will continue to be meaningful and serve us well beyond the pandemic. 

For more information and updates on how Amazon's workplace health and safety efforts, visit their blog. More on Amazon's Distance Assistant technology is here