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Inside Amazon's Kent fulfillment center, a proving ground for the company's coronavirus response

Benjamin Romano, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

BFI4 is one of a handful of Amazon buildings where the company is offering employees coronavirus tests.

"We feel like if coronavirus persists, a very real solution for operating our buildings will be to regularly test employees," Cheeseman said. "We're investing hundreds of millions of dollars in testing."

Employees can self-administer a nose-swab test, under the supervision of medical staff, once every two weeks and are reminded to do so, though it's not mandatory. While Amazon is building its own testing lab, samples taken at BFI4 are currently processed by the University of Washington. Employees agree to share test results with Amazon and public health officials.

The technology linking employee names, identifications, test kits, the lab system and Amazon's internal AtoZ app was built by Amazon technicians in Seattle. "Testing started here first ... in part so we could closely evaluate" the new process, Cheeseman said. The teams building the technology could see first-hand how it was working and make adjustments before it was rolled out elsewhere.

The company is fine-tuning its messaging about testing. Cheeseman said employees who are feeling sick shouldn't come to work just to get a test. Those employees are encouraged to consult their doctor to get a test outside of work.

Wall signs and taped lines and other markings on the floor direct people to keep 6 feet apart, but social distancing is an ongoing challenge -- more so in other Amazon facilities such as those that handle fresh groceries and smaller stations where packages are handed off to contract drivers for delivery to customers. Those tend to be more crowded, making distancing more difficult, workers have said.

 

Amazon redeployed 28 employees at BFI4 from their typical jobs to be "social distancing ambassadors." They stand near high-traffic areas, such as outside the break rooms and bathrooms, reminding people to stay 6 feet apart and calling out anyone not wearing their mask properly, among other tasks.

That measure alone will cost Amazon an estimated $85 million in lost productivity through the first half of the year. "They're no longer doing that picking and packing," Cheeseman said.

In addition, the building's camera systems have been used to identify high-traffic areas where more social distancing cues were needed. More recently, cameras were paired with a software system developed by Amazon's engineers and monitors to provide real-time feedback to people who are getting too close.

A 50-inch monitor placed at an intersection of two busy hallways shows people as they walk by a camera. They're circled in green if they're sufficiently distant from one another, and in red if they aren't. The Distance Assistant system was tested at BFI4. The company plans to deploy hundreds more at other facilities in coming weeks.

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