Just before 8am one Wednesday last December, a can of bear repellent exploded in an Amazon warehouse in New Jersey, sending two dozen workers to the hospital. It was not the first time the product had caused problems inside Amazon. The retail giant now believes it knows what happened: The aerosol can popped out of its faulty clamshell packaging, fell to the ground, and hit another object—probably the chain link fence that divides Amazon’s human employees from their robot colleagues. Irritating capsaicin fumes then began polluting the air, causing workers to cough and their eyes to burn.
The accident was bizarre, but it also demonstrated the unique challenges that come with running the largest online retail operation in the world, where nearly every product is for sale. In the aftermath, Amazon says it tracked down and removed thousands of bear and pepper spray items from 30 fulfilment centres across the country. It then stapled their packaging shut, “to help protect against any accidental discharge,” says Carletta Ooton, the vice president of health, safety, sustainability, security, and compliance at Amazon. Among other changes, Amazon now classifies bear repellent according to a higher safety standard, no longer allowing it to be handled by robots.
In the future, Amazon plans to store bear repellent and similarly hazardous items in a new kind of warehouse designed specifically for that sort of merchandise. It began developing the facilities last year—before the New Jersey incident—with an 80,000 square foot site test site in Virginia, which it retrofitted to accommodate controlled goods. This summer, Amazon will open the first of these warehouses built from the ground up, a 500,000 square foot fulfilment centre in Mississippi. That’s slightly less than nine football fields—and far smaller than other new Amazon warehouses—for items ranging from glitter hair spray and nail polish to household cleaners.