At Metro Detroit Amazon facility, every day amid COVID-19 is like 'the first day'

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Romulus — Temperature screenings, handwashing stations and cameras that track social distancing are some of the $4 billion in safety measures companywide that Inc. says it has taken to ensure employees stay healthy at its facilities amid COVID-19. 

The online retail giant recently gave The Detroit News a tour of its Romulus fulfillment center to show some of the 150 changes the company has put in place to keep employees safe. It's an ongoing effort, said Shawn Westlund, director of operations for the center near Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

Shawn Westlund, director of operations, uses a microphone and small PA speaker to help him social distance as he gives the tour.

"We've done all of the work in the facility to keep people safe, but my sole goal is to make the environment as safe as possible," he said. "We're treating it like it's the first day all the time." 

The changes came quickly in regional Amazon facilities after dozens of safety complaints were filed with the state in response to the first known COVID-19 cases in Michigan — even as the retailer worked to meet the growing demand for deliveries due to stay-at-home orders and consumer reluctance to visit reopening retailers.

When the 2,500 employees come into work for one of five staggered shifts, they're greeted with sanitizer stations, thermal temperature readings and a health screening. If they’re cleared, they can proceed to their work station. 

A crew from a third-party company works throughout the warehouse cleaning high touchpoint areas six times a day. There are more than 1,000 sanitizer stations throughout the building, Westlund said, and staff whose task is to refill the stations with hand sanitizer, sanitizer spray and paper towel.

"When they come in they have all the sanitizer they need to safely start their work day at their station," he said. The changes at Amazon come as plants and warehouses across the country work to balance how to keep large numbers of employees safe while remaining in operation.

On a recent day, new Amazon employees worked solo at work stations that previously had more than one employee to load products into yellow bins. A trainer pushes a rolling desk with a plastic barrier. He speaks into an amplifier so he's heard over the hum of the warehouse machines.

Video monitors in high-traffic areas, known as "distance assistants," display circles around passersby to alert if they are within six feet of one another. If there is enough distance, the circles are green. If not, they turn red. 

Employees social distance in the cafeteria.

The locker room was shut down. Seating was limited and staggered in the break rooms. The company has distributed masks and gloves to employees. 

Implementing the safety measures hasn’t come without a price: productivity is down.

"We're much less efficient than we were before and that's OK," Westlund said. "Amazon moves fast and we're a very efficient company, but nothing is more important than the safety of our associates. If we have to be less efficient, we will be less efficient to keep our associates safe. We will figure ways to get our customers their packages on time, but we're not going to cut any corners or make any sacrifices in the facility to create an unsafe working environment."

Amazon has four fulfillment and sortation centers and three delivery stations currently operating in Michigan. According to the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA), there have been 53 complaints from Amazon facilities in Michigan with the most at 31 in March and the fewest in July with 2 and August with 1.

Of the 53 complaints from Amazon's Michigan facilities, 46 have beeen closed so far with no citations issued, according to MIOSHA.

In late March and early April some Amazon employees protested about the working conditions in Romulus. Among them was MarTeya Spears of Redford. She said she took a leave from the company a couple months ago due to concerns of contracting COVID-19.

“I didn’t want to run the risk of bringing the virus home to my mom and son,” she said, adding that she plans to return to work when there are fewer COVID-19 cases: “Hopefully things have become safer for everyone."

Westlund said there have been instances of employees being diagnosed with COVID-19, but insists there has been no indication of transmission of the disease within his facility. 

Employees are able to take a leave without penalty, Westlund said. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the Romulus facility brought in more than 500 employees on a temporary basis. And many of those hires became full time.

Amanda Ottinger of Monroe says she feels safe working at Amazon. She's been with the company for two years and is temporarily serving as a hazardous waste coordinator. She's also worked on the safety committee.

Team members Samantha Washington, left, of Detroit, and Amanda Ottinger, of Monroe, communicate via phones as the social distance.

"There's always somebody cleaning something," she said. "There's always somebody wiping something somewhere. We have all kinds of teams in place that if somebody forgets to stay six feet apart we have somebody to remind them. If someone's mask slips down, we have somebody to remind them."

Ottinger said that she began to notice safety measures quickly including changing pathways to one-way only and the temperature checks. She also recently brought in her son to work at the facility, which she feels is safer than his previous job of transferring COVID-19 patients for a private ambulance company.

"I always felt that everything day-to-day that they were doing to change and make us safe I had no problem," she said. "Things were always in motion and always changing."

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN