Amazon’s warehouses just became the world’s largest laboratory for understanding musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) injuries.

Amazon has a long history of firsts and superlatives.  It was a pioneer in e-commerce and has gone on to disrupt industries in playing an almost essential role in our lives.  Now, with over a million full and part-time employees, Amazon is also one the largest US employers, second only to Walmart.

Now its 110 fulfillment centers in the US will effectively become the largest research and learning centers for the study of Musculoskeletal Disorder (MSD), the most common workers’ compensation related injury.  MSDs are the single largest category of workplace injuries and are responsible for almost 30 percent of all workers’ compensation costs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Amazon’s rapid growth has placed enormous pressure on its warehouse workforce.  Hourly quotas, fulfilling unrelenting customer orders and new technology like robots designed to stack shelves and transport items, have created a more risky warehouse environment.  Amazon has been criticized for its rate of serious injuries at its fulfillment centers. In 2020, the company reported 5.9 serious injuries per 100 workers, compared with an industry average of 3.3.

Amazon is stepping up to the plate and taking action, they recently announced the expansion of its WorkingWell safety and injury prevention program, first piloted in 2019.  The program is part of a $300 million spend on worker safety, and one of its goals is to cut workplace incident rates, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) measurement covering injury and illness, by 50% by 2025.

Through the WorkingWell program, Amazon is experimenting with new approaches along with tried and true methods.  What’s really important is the sheer size and scale of the effort with plans to extend the program to 1,000 facilities by the end of the year. Program elements include:

  • Videos for workers about injury prevention, including how to lift items properly
  • Hourly prompts to specific workers at their stations that guide them through various stretching and breathing exercises
  • Kiosks where employees can watch videos that show guided meditations and calming scenes and sounds
  • Rotations for employees among jobs that use different muscle groups to reduce repetitive-stress injuries
  • Injury prevention specialists who provide one-on-one coaching with employees, and workstation ergonomic adjustment

Amazon says it is working with universities as well as safety and industrial health experts, on workplace safety research, including understanding the mechanics behind MSD injuries. This is a huge step in the right direction, and that’s a good thing.

Preventing workplace injuries is the ultimate goal for any company, and Amazon’s moonshot initiative is welcome, but it’s clearly a special case. Workers’ compensation carriers also play an essential, day-to-day role in reducing injuries and their impact through effective case management and return to work processes.

Core systems provide case tools that enable an insurer to create a case and associate it with a given WC claim.  Case tools manage return-to-work plans, collect loss control and/or safety data, and overall injury management information that can be further analyzed.  Ecosystem partner offerings can extend capabilities by providing medical care optimization, in-depth analysis for proactive loss control / risk mitigation, and evidence-based medical guidelines.

All these measures empower insurance professionals to better control an injured worker’s wellbeing and influence their care. A good next step would be further collaboration between Amazon, industry and WC insurers with a commitment from Amazon to share its research to help reduce MSD injuries for all companies.  Amazon can play a major role in moving warehouse workers out of this category.

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Tony Novielli

Tony Novielli Tony is a proud American/Canadian citizen and is currently located in Oakville, ON, responsible for North American sales. He has over 35 years of experience in insurance software, system integration and consulting.