Just before 8am one Wednesday last December, a can of bear repellent exploded in an Amazon warehouse in New Jersey, sending two dozen workers to the hospital. It wasn’t the first time the product had caused problems inside Amazon. The retail giant now believes it knows what happened: The aerosol can popped out of its faulty clamshell packaging, fell to the ground, and hit another object—probably the chain link fence that divides Amazon’s human employees from their robot colleagues. Irritating capsaicin fumes then began polluting the air, causing workers to cough and their eyes to burn.
The accident was bizarre, but it also demonstrated the unique challenges that come with running the largest online retail operation in the world, where nearly every product is for sale. In the aftermath, Amazon says it tracked down and removed thousands of bear and pepper spray items from 30 fulfillment centers across the country. It then stapled their packaging shut, “to help protect against any accidental discharge,” says Carletta Ooton, the vice president of health, safety, sustainability, security and compliance at Amazon. Among other changes, Amazon now classifies bear repellent according to a higher safety standard, no longer allowing it to be handled by robots.
In the future, Amazon plans to store bear repellent and similarly hazardous items in a new kind of warehouse designed specifically for that sort of merchandise. It began developing the facilities last year—before the New Jersey incident—with an 80,000 square foot site test site in Virginia, which it retrofitted to accommodate controlled goods. This summer, Amazon will open the first of these warehouses built from the ground up, a 500,000 square foot fulfillment center in Mississippi. That’s slightly less than nine football fields—and far smaller than other new Amazon warehouses—for items ranging from glitter hair spray to nail polish and household cleaners.
“We recognized there was a need for specially engineered buildings to help safely store some types of products,” says Ooton. These new warehouses will “better use technology to handle consumer goods that could be a health hazard to our employees.”
The buildings will be equipped with upgrades like special sprinkler systems, and different designated storage areas for flammable goods, aerosols, and oxidizers. Amazon will specially train the staff who work there in how to handle spills and other mishaps. When a customer orders something from one of these fulfillment centers, it will always be delivered by ground, not by air. The entire facility is engineered with the kind of precautions in mind that you don’t need to consider when shipping, say, DVDs or dog toys.
The everything store‘s existing fulfillment centers do already have some precautionary measures in place. Amazon stows many items in special safety rooms or areas within warehouses, some of which have features like fire-rated walls. The new warehouses won’t replace those existing solutions. But given the retail giant’s size, it now serves up enough of these hazardous listings to merit dedicated buildings.
The decision may be overdue. The company has been repeatedly criticized for allegedly prioritizing productivity over the safety of its employees. And in December, CNBC reported that Amazon had received dozens of reports from the Office of Hazardous Materials Safety in 2018 alleging its packages violated regulations required by the US Department of Transportation. Building centralized facilities designed to follow these rules will likely cut down on the number of unsafe deliveries and accidents in the future.
Despite Amazon’s push to deliver Prime orders in a single day, storing different items in separate locations could slow things down. It might make it harder to ship stuff like cleaning supplies and t-shirts in the same package, for example. The retail giant has also long favored an organized chaos approach inside its fulfillment centers, where merchandise is mixed together; toothpaste with coffee mugs, greeting cards alongside nail clippers, and cat food next to foot cream.
But Amazon has also seen benefits from keeping certain items separate. The company already has specialized fulfillment centers for clothing, which needs to be hung or folded. And programs like Amazon Prime Pantry and Prime Wardrobe both encourage customers to order multiple items from single categories at the same time, making it convenient for the retail giant to store them in close proximity in a warehouse.
Amazon is also forcing manufacturers to change how stuff is made and what it looks like, so that it’s easier for the retail giant to store and deliver safely. Vendors and third-party sellers are often happy to abide by Amazon’s rules, because they can’t afford not to succeed on its site, where between one third and one half of all e-commerce sales are made. For example, Amazon is requiring manufacturers who sell items like bear spray pass its “Overbox Test,” which ensures their items can withstand bumps and falls inside Amazon warehouses. And it’s now fining vendors whose goods don’t abide by its packaging safety requirements.
Instead of getting manufacturers to change their packaging, Amazon could, of course, simply stop selling some items. After the accident in New Jersey, one Amazon warehouse associate told WIRED they wondered whether the company should stop carrying bear mace altogether, since it’s sometimes used as a weapon. Amazon has long banned other weapons like firearms and ammunition.
If Amazon “couldn’t do it safely, we would consider that,” says Ooton. For now though, Amazon will continue to strive to be the website where you can buy almost anything, including spray for warding off bears. It just won’t store it in the same way.
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