Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on March 1, 2018.

Prime Protection

How Amazon keeps its massive warehouses safe from fire and other life safety hazards


Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, used to be the day Americans swarmed shopping malls and big-box stores in search of the best deals of the holiday season. But today, increasingly, it's the day those same people—and others around the globe—can stay at home and do all the shopping they desire simply by clicking keys on a computer or tapping the screen of a tablet. The biggest reason for this?

In 2017, from Thanksgiving Day through Cyber Monday—the Monday after Thanksgiving, which has become Black Friday's online equivalent—the global online retail giant and technology company said it processed hundreds of millions of transactions, without specifying exactly how many. It did say nearly 140 million items were purchased from small businesses alone on Cyber Monday 2017—that's over 1,600 items every second. Future numbers are only expected to grow as more and more people turn from brick-and-mortar stores to online shopping. Some business analysts have projected Amazon sales, by number of items sold, to nearly double by 2020, and rumors have swirled for years that Amazon will launch a full-fledged shipping service to compete with UPS and FedEx sometime in the near future.

How does the company pull it off logistically?

For the most part, the answer lies in its fulfillment centers—large warehouses located across the country, which receive, store, and ship products directly to consumers' doorsteps. The products include anything from books to cellphones to cans of Lysol.

With so much activity and commodity breadth under one roof, keeping these facilities safe from fire and other life safety hazards is no small task. NFPA Journal recently spoke with Paul Pace, Amazon's North American director of environmental health and safety, about Amazon's fulfillment centers and how they're protected.

What exactly is an Amazon fulfillment center? How many are there, and are more being built?

It's a location where we receive, store, and ship products directly to the customer. That's why we call them a fulfillment center. We bring products directly to the customer's door. There are about 150 fulfillment centers worldwide and 75 in North America, with the vast majority of that number in the U.S. We're a growing company, so we expect our number of fulfillment centers to certainly increase in order to satisfy the needs of our customers.

Describe the facilities.

These fulfillment centers can get up to 1 million square feet, holding millions of items. A couple of them are around 1.25 million square feet, but on average, they're 800,000 to a million square feet. We categorize the buildings by the kind of inventory they hold and fulfill—large-sized items or small-sized items—and that means different kinds of technologies, conveyance systems, and formats. Each facility, on average, employs about 1,500 full-time associates.

Something that every national or international facility has to deal with is maintaining consistent safety across their facilities despite being located in different jurisdictions that adopt different codes and standards. How does Amazon do this?

Well, we always start with whatever codes or standards a jurisdiction is using, so local counties or townships we're operating in are satisfied. We want to do whatever is appropriate for that geography and starting with the jurisdiction is the way we do that. Beyond that, we have our own standard operating system, and we try to configure our fulfillment centers in such a way that there are commonalities between them so we can share best practices and things we might learn from one facility to another.

What's an example of a facility that might be different from another because of the jurisdiction where it's located?

California is the obvious example. The state building code includes provisions to protect structures from earthquakes. It requires, for example, masonry and other building materials to be tested to pass code requirements. So our facilities in California would adhere to those rules, whereas our facilities in areas that don't experience earthquakes wouldn't.

What's something that's consistent at your facilities regardless of location based on the standard operating system you mentioned?

One thing we standardize across our facilities is the walkway for employees, which runs throughout the facility. We make sure it's very wide so that employees can easily and quickly make their way through the fulfillment center—from the main entrance to the break room to their work stations—and that it is a safe distance from any moving machinery or other equipment.

Traditionally, warehouses have been configured to house commodities that pose the same, or at least similar, storage hazards. At Amazon's fulfillment centers, though, the range of commodities is huge. How do you account for that in the way those facilities are protected?

We certainly have a lot of different products inside these facilities, and we don't store like products together. We store them by size. In other words, you're not going to find all the books stored with other books. In reality, you'd find books alongside cellphones alongside other smaller goods. By randomly stowing inventory in our libraries, we can optimize cubic space and therefore have more inventory on hand for customers to order.

Paul Pace, addresses a group of Amazon workers wearing a safety vest and hardhat

Paul Pace, Amazon of North America's director of environmental health and safety. Photograph: Getty Images

Because this is our process, we have to achieve a level of safety that's appropriate for the highest-hazard item that might be present inside a facility. So when we're configuring a fulfillment center, all the rack heights and flue spaces and automatic fire sprinkler systems are going to be designed and installed to the highest commodity hazard that we could possibly have in there. In other words, there aren't portions of the building that have a less robust fire suppression system than others.

What are some other challenges to protecting Amazon's fulfillment centers?

Much of the protection is ensured during the design and building process of the facility, so once it's up and running it becomes mostly about protecting the people inside. We do extensive training with our employees to teach them about workplace hazards, and we have a strong system of reporting potential hazards to fellow employees and management.

One minor challenge I have dealt with is friction that can occur with so many moving mechanical pieces inside these facilities, such as conveyor belts. We have had incidents in which friction has caused some smoking, but not really any fires. So that's something we have to always be mindful of, and we are continually monitoring the equipment in our facilities to make sure things like that don't happen.

A company of Amazon's size would certainly have the ability to maintain internal fire brigades. Do you have those?

No, we don't. We find that it's better to utilize the services that are already present in the communities where our fulfillment centers are located. Whenever we open a facility, we invite the local fire and police departments to visit the facility, meet our staff, take a tour. We find that building that relationship beyond just an incident response is very, very valuable. It makes us more comfortable in the event of an incident and it makes them more comfortable, since it's never going to be the first time they've ever come onto our property. It's all part of the idea that no matter how big a company we are, we see ourselves as a local business, and we want to be a part of the communities where we're located.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images