Automation has revolutionized manufacturing, warehousing, and transportation industries, but advances in technology have a human cost. As they rely more and more on technology, companies have implemented increasingly stricter standards on human workers. These measures reduce an employee to how much they accomplish every minute, pushing many to ignore their bodies’ warning signs and work to the point of exhaustion.
This phenomenon is frequently seen in distribution centers, a large source of employment in Wisconsin. Over 54,000 people worked as laborers and material movers in Wisconsin as of 2018, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that almost 20,000 more worked as packers and packagers.
Employers in this category include some of the most widely known names in retail, including Walmart and Target, as well as those in niche sections of retail, such as Ashley Furniture and Menards. Wisconsin is also home to multiple Amazon distribution centers, including one in Madison and one in Kenosha. A one million-square-foot facility is under construction in Beloit.
As this sector has grown, so too have reports of employment injuries and complaints of unfair expectations in distribution centers.
Amazon Productivity Measures and Their Effects on Workers
Amazon has come under fire for its treatment of workers as more and more distribution centers have popped up across the country. As reported by The Atlantic, one worker suffered bulging discs and joint inflammation after working in an Amazon warehouse scanning more than 300 items per hour to meet Amazon’s standard of one item scanned every 11 seconds.
Matthew C. Lein, Marquette 2007, is a lawyer with Lein Law Offices in Hayward, where he practices in workers’ compensation, personal injury, and consumer law.
Injury records compiled from 23 of Amazon’s fulfillment centers indicated a rate of 9.6 serious injuries per 100 workers in 2018. This is significantly higher than the industry average. In 2018, there were 4.5 injuries per 100 employees in the transportation and warehousing industry. Employees in this industry suffered over 220,000 injuries in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Although company representatives claim that injury rates are high due to conservative injury reporting and removal of injured employees from physically demanding positions, Amazon employees tell a different story. There are reports of ignored lifting restrictions and employees being sent back to their positions before they are physically ready.
Injury Rates in the Distribution Center Industry as a Whole
While many reports focus on Amazon, the problem extends to the distribution center industry as a whole. The distribution center injury rate of 4.5 per 100 employees is the second highest across all industries, with only the agriculture, foresting, farming, and fishing industry racking up higher injury rates than transportation and warehousing (Bureau of Labor Statistics).
The tactics used by Amazon and other large retail outfits to maximize worker productivity may yield a higher rate of injuries, but they also improve numbers. For many executives, getting items to customers quickly is a higher priority than setting and enforcing reasonable standards for distribution center workers. Amazon has increased consumer expectations by first offering two-day delivery, and then one-day delivery, to Prime members.
For many companies, the only way to compete with this increasingly impossible standard is to employ the same tactics used by Amazon distribution centers. It would seem that Amazon is setting a dangerous trend in this regard.
Workers’ Compensation for Distribution Center Employees
Distribution center injuries run the full gamut. Injuries described earlier, including lower back injuries and repetitive stress injuries, are relatively common in this setting.
However, they are also at greater risks of severe or fatal injuries caused by a single event. For example, warehouse workers have been killed when crushed or run over by forklifts, when hit by falling objects, or after a slip and fall.
Despite the fact that the Worker’s Compensation Act is clear about the rights of employees, workers often struggle to exert these rights. In particular, repetitive stress injuries and chronic pain can be challenging to trace back to specific work activities. When claims are initially denied, many employees choose not to pursue an appeal, worrying that their employment may be at risk if they do so.
As distribution centers continue to expand across Wisconsin and injury rates remain high, employees’ plight may become more publicized and force change. Until then, those advancing the country’s economy and corporations may shoulder the burden of self-advocacy.