Amazon’s Idea for Employee-tracking Wristbands Raises Concerns About Workplace Surveillance

A picture from Amazon’s employee tracker patent

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 (AMZN) 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.

In the patent descriptions, the tracking devices are carefully described as a way to collect data about inventory, not individual employees.

“The speculation about this patent is misguided,” an Amazon spokesperson told CNN Tech. “This idea, if implemented in the future, would improve the process for our fulfillment associates. By moving equipment to associates’ wrists, we could free up their hands from scanners and their eyes from computer screens.”

The system 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.

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SOURCE: CNN, Heather Kelly