On Monday, Amazon announced WorkingWell, a new program that it claims helps make its workplaces safe by drastically cutting injury rates by fortifying each worker’s mind.
The program will feature "physical and mental activities, wellness exercises, and healthy eating support" that are "scientifically proven to help them recharge and reenergize." Part of the program will see the rollout of what Amazon is calling AmaZen, which sounds like it came straight from the writer’s room at Black Mirror. AmaZen “guides employees through mindfulness practices in individual interactive kiosks at buildings,” according to a press release. During shifts, “employees can visit AmaZen stations and watch short videos featuring easy-to-follow wellbeing activities, including guided meditations, positive affirmations, calming scenes with sounds, and more.”
According to the release, workers will also get hourly prompts at their work stations “guiding them through a series of scientifically proven physical and mental activities to help recharge and reenergize, and ultimately reduce the risk of injury.” These prompts, called Mind & Body Moments, can include “stretching recommendations, breathing exercises, and mental reflections,” and Amazon says the program will evolve to serve more personalized prompts to workers.
Amazon’s language conjures up images of robots filling up their batteries instead of human beings being allowed to rest in between demanding physical work. Time and time again, when given the choice between moving away from expecting its workers to perform at herculean levels or doubling down on methods that allow an extra bit of productivity to be squeezed out, Amazon chooses the latter.
Instead of letting its delivery drivers have bathroom breaks or assigning them more lenient delivery schedules, the company tried to install surveillance cameras inside delivery vans then to force drivers to sign “biometric consent” forms allowing effectively permanent surveillance of every driver. Already, Amazon requires drivers to use an app called Mentor that monitors their speed and assigns safety scores, but quasi-independent Amazon contractors instruct drivers to turn it off so they can hit the company’s intense delivery targets.
Amazon claims it's spending $300 million on safety projects this year and hopes to cut recordable incident rates by 50 percent by 2025. Part of that spend is undoubtedly WorkingWell, which the company says has already been piloted in the United States since 2019 and covers some 859,000 employees across North America and Europe.
WorkingWell will bring in several other initiatives besides AmaZen and Mind & Body Moments, such as Wellness Centers to treat injured workers at warehouses and Neighborhood Health Centers where workers can get medical help for certain issues that appear to dovetail with working at an Amazon warehouse. Amazon will also put up signs in break rooms pointing out healthy food options, a program it calls EatWell.
And for all this, some commentators have been quick to gush about Amazon’s rhetoric here and elsewhere about safety, but it’s important to remember what the company has actually done on that front.
After all, just last September it was revealed that Amazon lied to the public and lawmakers about recordable incidents and covered up how its injury rates were increasing nationwide at well over 100 warehouses. The WorkingWell program offers no guarantees similar cover ups will not happen again, nor does it offer any solution to the fact that work is so demanding at Amazon that employees urinate in bottles and defecate in bags.
“Safety is the top priority for everyone at Amazon. While many companies under-record safety incidents in order to keep their rates low, Amazon does the opposite – we take an aggressive stance on recording injuries no matter how big or small,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement to Motherboard. “While any serious incident is one too many, we learn and improve our programs to prevent future incidents. We are proud of the thousands of Amazonians who work hard every day innovating ways to make our workplaces even better. We encourage anyone to come see for themselves by taking a virtual tour of one of our fulfillment centers.”
Instead of lowering productivity targets or curtailing worker surveillance, Amazon seems to be figuring out more complex and elaborate methods of getting the most out of workers.
It’s hard to overemphasize how much more effective an injury reduction strategy it would be for Amazon to simply demand less of its workers, but such a move makes no sense to a monopoly such as Amazon. It became the everything store in part by pushing workers to the absolute limit. As its ubiquitous surveillance cements the company’s status as the everywhere store, there’s no reason to think it won’t look for more ways to make workers more resilient while it continues to grind their bodies down.