Amazon's Chattanooga distribution center will enable its workers to self-test for the coronavirus within weeks as one of an array of efforts to keep employees healthy, officials said Thursday.
"I think it's the new normal. Until we have a vaccine," said Chris Scanlon, the center's general manager, during a walk-through of the sprawling local facility highlighting measures Amazon has put into place.
He said the Chattanooga site has doubled its workforce to over 3,000 employees from its headcount in January, and it's still hiring to meet customers' growing demand for goods.
"I don't see an end in sight. It's the busiest ever seen by the company as a whole," said Scanlon, who has been at the Chattanooga facility for nine years.
Amazon spokesman Owen Torres said the company in March announced it would hire more than 175,000 temporary full- and part-time workers across its North American operations. It later said it would provide the opportunity for 125,000 of those to stay with the company.
Amazon has faced criticism in and outside the company amid the pandemic as it stayed open as an essential business. According to CNBC, at least eight Amazon employees have died across the company, and 50 of its fulfillment centers worldwide have reported positive cases.
In Chattanooga, Scanlon said that more than one employee has tested positive, though he declined to give a number citing company policy. He said the company informs other employees in each case and does contact-tracing to see if any more workers may have been infected.
Everyone is required to wear a face mask in the center, Amazon officials said. New black masks with the small, blue Amazon arrow just arrived, they said.
BY THE NUMBERS
* 100,000 - Number of face masks given out at Chattanooga’s Amazon center since March
* 170,000 - Face masks in stock at the center
* 500 - Gallons of sanitizer in the building and in storage for use by the center
Social distancing is in effect in the center, with changes made to space out employees working at some of the estimated 10 miles of clattering conveyor belts which carry packages, Scanlon said.
To enter, each employee passes through thermal screening that shows body temperature on a couple of laptop computers overseen by a worker, he said. If an employee records an above average temperature, they're pulled aside and tested again with a hand-held thermometer, Scanlon said. Persons with temperatures aren't allowed in the building, officials said.
From the facility's entrance and through the center, floor signs direct foot traffic and employee spacing. Plexiglas has been installed at locations to separate workers where needed, Scanlon said.
He said that employee shifts have been staggered so workers don't bunch up and people are encouraged to use hand sanitizer at stations located at entrances, exits, stairwells and other points, the general manager said.
Clocking into work also has changed, Scanlon said. About 80% of workers now use an app on their cellphones, he said.
More break areas have been added for employees, with the large, main site that was sized to hold 450 now having no more than 110 workers, Scanlon said.
"There's lots of thinking outside the box," the company official said.
Scanlon said hand rails inside the center, which has a mezzanine level, are wiped down eight times per shift. The center is running two shifts a day, and in between, employers spray down the building with disinfectant spray, Scanlon said.
Hannah Chorley of Ooltewah, who has worked at the center for about a year, said she was an elementary school teacher before she joined Amazon.
She said Amazon has gone through "the correct protocol" in implementing safety procedures after the outbreak.
"I feel safe," Chorley said.
Robert Wrinkle, a three-year employee at Amazon, said he believes the company has been ahead of the coronavirus.
"It's very progressive," the 66-year-old Chattanooga man said about the e-commerce giant that also operates a distribution center in nearby Charleston, Tennessee.
In one side of the massive distribution center, stations are already set up to handle regular employee self-testing for the coronavirus when the time comes.
"It's coming soon," Scanlon said. "It will be all self-service."
At another location near the front, workers who need medical services have access to care-givers. A wall of the ever-present bright yellow totes which typically carry packages on the conveyor lines was built nearby to give some privacy to employees, he said.
"I'm confident in saying that we're as safe inside the building than anywhere outside these four walls," Scanlon said. He couldn't give a dollar cost to changes at the center, but termed it "significant."
Scanlon estimated that upwards of 150 processes have been changed.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.