Listen to the audio version of this story, originally aired in XRAY’s daily podcast The Local.
“It seems like every safety measure is just to keep us working, just to keep the machine working.”
Those were the words of one of two workers in a Portland area Amazon facility who spoke to XRAY on condition of anonymity about their experiences there as the company implements new measures in response to COVID-19.
Both people interviewed by XRAY are among the many who have been working overtime for Amazon as the company fulfills a surge of orders from people staying at home and buying more stuff than ever from the e-commerce giant.
“I’m kinda cynical about it. They’re doing everything they possibly can to keep us at work.”
– Amazon worker who spoke to XRAY on condition of anonymity
But as the company hires more people and cranks out order after order, it’s also launched several health protection and monitoring efforts. From thermal body temperature scans to a COVID-19 test trial that could lead to regular testing, workers in the Amazon fulfillment center are among those at the front lines of some of the company’s newest pandemic response efforts.
Whether they’re guinea pigs for stepped-up worker health surveillance, or recipients of an employer’s commitment to duty of care for its employees, depends on how you look at it.
“I’m kinda cynical about it,” said one of the employees who has been involved in a worker-led unionization effort at Amazon. “They’re doing everything they possibly can to keep us at work.”
Some Procedures Are “Just an Added Stress”
The employees discussed a rapidly-evolving array of protective measures in place at the packing and shipping plant, known as PDX9. But they have mixed feelings about their safety when it comes to warding off infection from Novel Coronavirus.
One said the facility is “about as safe as it can be,” amid the pandemic, but lamented a “maddening” array of new or fluctuating rules and procedures which are “just an added stress.”
The other said, “Amazon has implemented some safety measures to reduce risk, but I don’t believe that any procedure could make me completely safe from infection.”
Amazon just reported sales growth that was bigger than anticipated. The company also said costs were way up as it invested “in personal protective equipment for employees, enhanced cleaning of our facilities, our wages for our hourly teams and hundreds of millions of dollars to develop COVID-19 testing capabilities.”
Despite claims from Amazon workers elsewhere who say they don’t have enough masks, the employees XRAY spoke with said they have been able to get new masks each day they come to work. They can also bring their own if they choose.
Company communications state that masks are mandatory. However, one worker said sometimes people walk around with their masks down around their necks. And in the already “really loud” facility, masks make it “really hard to communicate.”
A general manager’s email to PDX9 staff from late April obtained by XRAY declares, “Heroes wear masks.” It continues, “You may not be a masked superhero in a comic book or movie, but each day you come to PDX9 wearing a face covering properly, you’re a hero to your co-workers and customers.”
Amazon has also begun spraying down surfaces and areas that are difficult to reach, with disinfectant chemical spray. “It is a safe practice most commonly used in hospitals, airline and schools,” noted a recent edition of “InSTALLments,” part of a newsletter posted in company bathroom stalls.
“I don’t believe that any procedure could make me completely safe from infection.”
– Amazon worker who spoke to XRAY on condition of anonymity
As for social distancing, Amazon has implemented social distancing requirements and staggered employee break times in an effort to keep workers physically separated. But one of the workers XRAY spoke with said the amount of new employees at PDX9 is noticeable.
Amazon would not reveal the number of new workers there, but a company spokesperson told XRAY that throughout Oregon, it has added 1,200 new employees. That’s a sliver of the 100,000 total people it has hired overall since mid-March to keep up with demand. The company has 500 additional positions open in the state.
Infrared Thermal Body Scanners, Made in the U.S.A.
One new addition to Amazon’s costly pandemic protection regime: skin temperature screening infrared cameras. There are at least three at PDX9, one worker said.
The company appears to have replaced arguably less-sophisticated handheld temperature readers with the new body temperature scanners. Because elevated temperature is a symptom of COVID-19, the idea here is to monitor worker infection risk by checking their body temperatures. The general manager’s email refers to “Thermal temperature checks for everyone entering the building” as a “safety action.”
Reuters reported recently that Amazon bought 1,500 thermal cameras to measure worker’s temperatures from a Chinese firm which the United States has blacklisted.
But according to one of the Amazon employees XRAY spoke with, the thermal cameras in use in Troutdale are made by ICI, a Texas company that builds its equipment in Beaumont. The ICI FM 640 camera is a skin temperature screening infrared camera system.
“We are now implementing the use of thermal imagers from multiple manufacturers for temperature screening to create a more streamlined experience for our employees,” said the Amazon spokesperson.
The scanners look like a small camera mounted on a tripod. There are at least three of them set up along aisles where workers file in to start a shift at Amazon’s PDX9.
“They want you to walk slowly,” said one worker. “It picks up readings and someone with a laptop looks to see your temperature.”
Software displays yellow, blue, red and green blobs on a monitor while detecting body temperature readings.
The thermal cameras measure the temperature of the tear ducts. There, the inner corner of the eye – the inner canthus – marks the warmest spot on the human face.
Gary Strahan, CEO of ICI, said he would neither confirm nor deny whether the company has sold its cameras to Amazon. But he did describe a bit about how the technology works.
Sensors in the infrared cameras detect radiant energy emanating from the human body. That energy is converted into a signal which eventually is translated as a temperature estimate and image.
“A normal thermometer you buy from CVS or Walgreens – it’s a single point sensor, and you hold it close to your head,” said Strahan. “So the advantage of an infrared camera is you can be at a distance away from something and at a distance measure temperature very accurately.”
“A next step might be regular testing of our employees.”
– Amazon spokesperson
It’s not clear whether the temperature reading is being noted in conjunction with a worker’s scanned ID; however, the Amazon spokesperson suggested the thermal cameras used in its facilities are not disseminating data through an Internet connection.
“None of this equipment has network connectivity, and no personal identifiable information will be visible, collected, or stored,” the spokesperson said.
COVID-19 Test Trial Could Lead to Regular Testing
The latest addition to Amazon’s COVID-19 health monitoring in Troutdale? Nose-swab tests. The Oregonian reported on the testing, noting that those who test positive will get up to two weeks paid leave.
“A next step might be regular testing of our employees, and we’ve started our first small-scale pilot. We don’t know exactly yet how it’s going to shape up, but we continue to believe it’s worth trying,” the spokesperson told XRAY.
One worker who was not experiencing COVID-19 symptoms was offered a nose-swab test, but declined. That may indicate that, at least for now, the testing may be voluntary.