Yesterday, an "automated machine" at an Amazon warehouse in Robbinsville Township, New Jersey accidentally punctured a 9 ounce can of bear spray or repellent. This released the powerful capsaicin inside, sickening up to 80 workers and sending 24 of them to the hospital for injuries. All those effected were expected to be released within 24 to 48 hours.
Capsaicin is the active ingredient in personal defense pepper sprays, including bear repellent. It is derived from chili peppers and rates extremely high on the Scoville scale, causing mucus distress, pain, and difficulty breathing in mammals. It is for this reason that it is used in sprays meant to deter pests and aggressors.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (Amazon's employees are non-union, however) blamed the accident on robots, stating:
Amazon's automated robots put humans in life-threatening danger today, the effects of which could be catastrophic and the long-term effects for 80 plus workers are unknown. The richest company in the world cannot continue to be let off the hook for putting hard working people's lives at risk. Our union will not back down until Amazon is held accountable for these and so many more dangerous labor practices.
The Union's statement is an obvious attempt at denigrating the rise of automation in sorting and distribution facilities, blaming the accident on this sort of automation (in addition, calling exposure to pepper spray "life-threatening" and "catastrophic" seems a little hyperbolic). However, automation enables warehouses to operate much more efficiently, as well as relieving humans from having to perform mundane or physically-taxing tasks. Indeed, Amazon has pioneered automation so that human workers do not have to run across huge warehouses to pick items for orders or lift heavy objects repeatedly. A 2017 New York Times article detailed some of the changes brought about by Amazon with automation, noting that workers were overall happy with the changes and relieved to be able to perform more mentally stimulating work.