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June 16, 2020 3:15 PM, EDT

Amazon Deploys Social Distancing Software at US Warehouses

Employees work inside an Amazon fulfillment center in Baltimore in April 2019.Employees work inside an Amazon fulfillment center in Baltimore in April 2019. (Melissa Lyttle/Bloomberg News)

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Amazon.com Inc. is deploying software in its warehouses to automatically warn employees when they are too close to colleagues, the latest effort by the retailer to adjust its facilities to life with the coronavirus.

The new software, called Distance Assistant, displays camera footage on a television monitor, with annotations noting which employees are following social distancing guidelines. Employees keeping a safe distance are circled in green, and those the software determines are within 6 feet of someone else are circled in red, offering workers immediate visual feedback.

Brad Porter, a vice president who oversees much of Amazon’s robotics engineering work, likened the new tool to highway speed check signs. In a corporate blog post published June 16, he said the system already was in use in high-traffic areas at a handful of Amazon facilities, and that Amazon planned to install hundreds of more units in the next few weeks.

The company intends to make its new software freely available to other businesses, Porter said. A spokeswoman didn’t say when it would be available.

The COVID-19 pandemic has sickened more than 1,100 Amazon employees and killed at least nine, according to workers who track the company’s internal reports. The pandemic sparked mass absenteeism and a hiring spree inside the warehouses that pack and ship Amazon orders, and the company has worked to adjust its processes to bring them in line with public health guidelines.

The company also has sought to bring its engineering expertise to bear in combating the virus, setting up its own coronavirus testing laboratory and seeking to aid with research into the disease.

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