Amazon's idea for employee-tracking wearables raises concerns

A warehouse worker reaches for a high shelf, a wristband wrapped around each arm. The company-issued wearables track ...

Posted: Feb 2, 2018 6:08 PM
Updated: Feb 2, 2018 6:08 PM

A warehouse worker reaches for a high shelf, a wristband wrapped around each arm. The company-issued wearables track the location of every product the employee handles while occasionally vibrating to guide their movements.

The scene is just a drawing from a pair of patents Amazon won for tracking wristbands. The gadgets aren't in use in any of Amazon's fulfillment centers, but news that Amazon has considered wearables has raised concerns about workplace surveillance.

Amazon wouldn't say if technology based on the patents was in development or being manufactured. The patents were published Wednesday, though Amazon first submitted them two years ago.

If such a system were to be implemented, it could further strain the company's relationships with its workers.

"It could impact employee anxiety, morale and overall work culture," said Kate Bischoff, owner of tHRive, an employment law and HR consulting firm.

Amazon warehouse employees have complained of difficult working conditions for years. Issues raised include intense pressure to reach goals and work faster, strictly enforced rules, short breaks, low morale, and physically demanding work for low pay.

Related: Inside Amazon Go: the store of the future

In the patent descriptions, the tracking devices are carefully described as a way to collect data about inventory, not individual employees. They would use ultrasonic pulses - pitches too high for human ears to detect - to connect with inventory modules on bins to track a worker's hands. Vibrations would communicate information to the wearer, such as alerting someone when they put something in the wrong bin.

The system could simplify the current warehouse workflows. Amazon has its "pickers" stand in front of shelves and move items into bins, tracking each with a handheld barcode scanner.

Any wearable could collect a lot of personal information about an employee, even unintentionally. They could gather detailed information about a worker's every move - when they go to the restroom, if they slow down at certain times of day, how often they stop and rest.

"It's always really helpful to know those productivity numbers and know how fast people work," said Bischoff. "But to get it on such a granular level by employee - that's going to create mass anxiety and it's going to make it difficult to hire and retain employees."

There is also the potential for gathering information that could put the employer at risk, said Bischoff.

In theory, a company could fire a worker if their wearable found they were performing tasks slower than co-workers. If the issue was cased by an on-the-job injury or existing disability, the company could end up breaking federal and state laws.

Making employment decisions based on any collected biometric data could violate the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.

"I understand some employees might embrace it in a physically demanding position if would help them do their jobs more efficiently with less effort. But at this point in time, I have more questions than answers about how it will be used," said Paula Brantner, senior advisor at Workplace Fairness, an employee rights organization.

Last summer, a Wisconsin technology company, Three Square Market, said more than 50 employees agreed to receive microchip implants to get through secure doors and purchase food. The concept sparked some backlash.

Amazon warehouse workers have so far been unable to unionize. If they were in a union, workers would likely be able to bargain over the use of any proposed surveillance technology.

Some states like Connecticut have laws that restrict employee surveillance or require companies to notify employees of any monitoring.

Amazon is constantly trying out new innovation and technology at its warehouses. It has already successfully automated large amounts of traditionally human tasks with its custom robots.

With or without the wearable devices, the company's warehouses will likely introduce other high-tech ways to increase productivity. Perhaps using more robots, who don't mind surveillance.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 34574

Reported Deaths: 2134
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion9853578
Lake3616190
Allen161869
Cass15877
Elkhart132228
St. Joseph127434
Hendricks116971
Hamilton115993
Johnson1105108
Madison58659
Porter53928
Bartholomew51135
Clark50441
LaPorte43323
Howard40828
Tippecanoe4023
Jackson3891
Delaware38537
Shelby37322
Hancock33827
Floyd31839
Boone31535
Morgan27724
Vanderburgh2742
Montgomery24117
White2358
Noble23221
Clinton2321
Decatur22431
Grant21122
Dubois1993
Harrison19422
Henry18211
Greene16924
Vigo1698
Dearborn16821
Monroe16612
Warrick16628
Lawrence16324
Miami1401
Putnam1377
Kosciusko1351
Jennings1304
Orange12822
Scott1203
Franklin1108
Ripley1096
Marshall1082
Carroll932
Daviess8816
Steuben832
Wayne825
LaGrange812
Wabash782
Newton7810
Fayette777
Jasper671
Washington521
Jay520
Clay511
Fulton491
Rush472
Randolph473
Pulaski460
Jefferson451
Whitley423
Starke393
DeKalb371
Sullivan361
Owen351
Brown331
Perry330
Wells320
Benton300
Huntington282
Knox280
Tipton251
Blackford252
Crawford240
Fountain212
Switzerland200
Spencer201
Parke180
Gibson172
Posey160
Adams151
Ohio130
Warren121
Martin110
Vermillion100
Union90
Pike60
Unassigned0167
West Lafayette
Overcast
71° wxIcon
Hi: 76° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 71°
Kokomo
Clear
70° wxIcon
Hi: 73° Lo: 62°
Feels Like: 70°
Rensselaer
Overcast
70° wxIcon
Hi: 73° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 70°
Fowler
Overcast
70° wxIcon
Hi: 74° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 70°
Williamsport
Overcast
70° wxIcon
Hi: 76° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 70°
Crawfordsville
Scattered Clouds
68° wxIcon
Hi: 74° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 68°
Frankfort
Overcast
73° wxIcon
Hi: 74° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 73°
Delphi
Broken Clouds
71° wxIcon
Hi: 74° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 71°
Monticello
Broken Clouds
71° wxIcon
Hi: 73° Lo: 62°
Feels Like: 71°
Logansport
Overcast
70° wxIcon
Hi: 74° Lo: 61°
Feels Like: 70°
Mild Today, Much Warmer Weather Tomorrow.
WLFI Radar
WLFI Temps
WLFI Planner

COVID-19 Important links and resources

As the spread of COVID-19, or as it's more commonly known as the coronavirus continues, this page will serve as your one-stop for the resources you need to stay informed and to keep you and your family safe. CLICK HERE

Closings related to the prevention of the COVID-19 can be found on our Closings page.

Community Events