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13 Secrets of Amazon Warehouse Employees

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RALPH D. FRESO/Reuters/Landov

In 2014, Amazon sold two billion items worldwide. All those products, from phone cases to car seats, are stored inside Amazon’s fulfillment centers and then sorted and wrapped by warehouse workers. In the U.S. alone there are more than 50 of these gigantic buildings with 40,000 workers toiling away inside them, and that’s not counting the tens of thousands of part-time workers who join during busy seasons.

These are the people who make sure your package, no matter how big or small, gets to your doorstep. We spoke to a few of these employees about what it’s like to be part of the Amazon machine.

1. Not everyone has a horror story

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There have been dozens of stories portraying Amazon warehouses as inhumane, hellish workplaces, and while some workers may have been subject to these conditions, the ones I spoke to hadn’t. “It is certainly hard work,” said Brant Ivey, who spent six months in one of Amazon’s hubs lifting oversized objects. But “the conditions at the warehouse were on par or better than most other warehouses that I have been in.” One of the biggest complaints is that the warehouses are too hot. In 2012, after a lengthy expose revealed brutally hot summertime conditions, Amazon announced plans to spend $52 million to install air conditioning in its U.S. warehouses.

One Reddit user put it bluntly: “The work does suck, but all warehouse work sucks. I have experienced FAR worse conditions and been treated terrible by other Fortune 500 companies.”

2. They leave everything at the door

Amazon workers aren’t allowed to bring anything with them to the warehouse floor, including cell phones. They arrive empty-handed and leave empty-handed. “If you brought in your phone and you weren’t management, security would confiscate it and at end of night you had to go to security to pick it up,” says Charlee Mided, who worked in a warehouse in Phoenix, Arizona in 2013. “Then you’d get home late. So everyone knows not to do it.”

3. They hate the metal detectors

As an added layer of security, workers are subject to airport-style security checkpoints each time they leave the floor, including lunch break. According to Mided, when the lunch buzzer rings, there’s a mad rush to avoid the lines. “If you’re way over on one side of the warehouse and lunch is called, you have 30 minutes from that point to clock out, eat, and come back. You’re spending half your time waiting to be scanned out so you can be sure you’re not stealing anything. It leaves you with about 10 minutes for food.” The same lines form at the end of the day when workers pour out of the building. And workers don’t get paid to stand in line, thanks to a Supreme Court decision at the end of 2014 that ruled businesses like Amazon don't have to pay employees for the time they spend waiting to be scanned.

4. They have strict quotas

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Workers who pull items from shelves to fulfill your orders are known as “pickers,” and they are monitored for their speed and accuracy. “My only job was to grab two large, yellow plastic bins, put them on my double decker shopping cart, and fill them with the items that my scanner told me to find,” a former picker said during a Reddit AMA.

“At my peak, I was picking 120+ items per hour, and it was just good enough.”

5. And they walk. A lot.

Amazon fulfillment centers are colossal. One warehouse in Baltimore covers one million square feetor roughly 23 acres. That’s a lot of land to cover on foot. One employee, who worked in Amazon warehouses for 14 years, told us he walked 13 miles a day when picking. “That’s over a 10 hour period, so its like 1.3 miles per hour, which isn’t bad,” he says. “But doing it for 10 hours straight, by the third or fourth day your legs are almost like jelly.”

6. The shelves are chaos

When items arrive at the warehouse, they’re scanned and placed in cubby holes on one of hundreds of rows of shelves. But there’s no rhyme or reason to where they’re stored, and even seasoned warehouse employees can’t make sense of it. “Each cubby hole is filled with an assortment of items,” according to a former worker.

“There might be a book, a toothbrush, a copy of a Barbie VHS tape from 1993, and a pair of moccasins. And you'll only pick one of the items.” There’s a term for this: chaotic storage.

Amazon’s database knows where there’s empty shelf space and fills it as quickly as possible to maximize efficiency. Electronic scanners tell workers where to find the items they’re looking for. Video shows shelving chaos:

7. They have to do group exercises

“Every night, twice a night, when we showed up and when we came back from lunch we had to do calisthenics,” says Mided. “Jumping jacks, reacharounds, swinging our arms. It limbers you up and it really is helpful for the job, but it's just… it kinda makes you feel like you’re five.”

8. And bubble wrap is their entertainment

Mided says occasionally the machine that distributed bubble wrap at her warehouse cut too much, but workers didn’t mind. “They’d be like, ‘Oh look! Bubble wrap!’ You’d see people just sitting around popping bubble wrap. Everyone wanted to be on bubble wrap detail.” Amazon workers: They’re just like us!

9. The warehouse cafeteria is a war zone 

Workers have two lunch options: Bring your own, or buy a meal from one of dozens of vending machines stocked with mediocre microwavable meals like burgers and hot dogs. “You’d buy a hamburger and it didn’t taste like real beef,” one former worker told us. And good luck heating up your food. Mided’s warehouse cafeteria had about 20 microwaves, and the fight for zap time was fierce. “It was a war zone trying to get enough time to heat your food and then get out without being run over,” she says. “You would see people fight. The smartest thing to do was to pack something that doesn’t need microwaving, because that was killer.”

10. The warehouses have their own nurse’s office

"It’s very much like a school nurse’s office,” says Mided. “You sit down, they tell you to ice this or that. You tell them on a scale of one to 10 which face matches your pain. They really can’t treat you much. They can give you ice and aspirin, that’s about it.”

11. And fakers get put on broom duty

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"A lot of people would make up stuff just to get off the floor,” a former worker says. “Some people would just confuse being tired with being hurt. They’d say, ‘My legs hurt!’ No, you’ve just been walking around forever." If the nurse can't find anything wrong with you but you insist you're unwell, the supervisors will find an easy job for you to do that doesn't require any heavy lifting. More often than not, this means broom duty. "That's only good for the first hour,” Mided says. “Twelve hours of pushing a broom is the most mind-numbing thing on the planet. But that still doesn't prevent people from faking."

12. “Problem solver” is a warehouse job

It’s their responsibility to fix other people's mistakes. If a warehouse packer screws up on the assembly line, the Amazon machine knows it. Scales weigh each package, and if the weight is off, the box gets pulled and a “problem solver” is called over to inspect it. “If there is an error during any stage of the process, I find it, correct it, and provide the feedback to the person or cause of the error,” explains one problem solver in a recent Reddit AMA.

13. They see some crazy orders

If there’s one thing all Amazon warehouse workers will tell you, it’s that people order some weird things. “The amount of stand-up life-size Justin Biebers I saw was unnecessary,” Mided says. “And a lot more sex toys than you would think. Really odd ones. Even grown men or women warehouse workers are still kinda like a 12-year-old when they see that. Amazon really does sell everything.”

See Also:
19 On-the-Job Secrets of UPS Drivers
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10 Hotel Secrets from Behind the Front Desk 
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10 Things You Might Not Know About Flight Attendants

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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