One worker was in intensive care and two dozen others were treated at five New Jersey hospitals Wednesday after a can of bear repellent fell off a shelf and ended up punctured by a robot at an Amazon warehouse in Robbinsville, officials said.
One worker was in critical condition, and 30 more were sickened and treated on the scene. The primary cause for hospitalization was difficulty breathing, officials said. Bear spray contains concentrated capsaicin, the primary ingredient in pepper spray for humans.
Robbinsville town spokespeople initially said that a can of bear spray had fallen off of the shelf in the Amazon fulfillment center, but officials later said that the cause of the accident was a robot.
An investigation found “an automated machine accidentally punctured a nine-ounce bear repellent can, releasing concentrated capsaicin,” Robbinsville public information officer John Nalbone said. It’s unclear how the incident occurred.
The worker had to be intubated and was sent to the intensive care unit at Robert Wood Johnson hospital, officials said.
Late Wednesday night, an Amazon spokeswoman said all affected workers had been or were expected to be released within 24 hours.
Twenty-four workers were sent to hospitals in nearby Hamilton, Princeton, Hopewell and Trenton, said John Nalbone, communications and public information officer for Robbinsville Township. That total includes the person who was critically injured.
Another 30 people were treated at the scene of the fulfillment center, in an industrial park off Interstate 195. There was no threat to area residents, Nalbone said.
The can, which weighed 9 ounces, fell off a shelf on the third floor of the south wing of the warehouse and accidentally dispersed, Nalbone said. An automated machine punctured the can, setting off the repellent. The active ingredient in the repellent is the irritant capsaicin and is “extremely concentrated,” Nalbone said.
“The safety of our employees is our top priority, and as such, all employees in that area have been relocated to a safe place and employees experiencing symptoms are being treated onsite,” Amazon spokeswoman Rachael Lighty said in a statement. “As a precaution, some employees have been transported to local hospitals for evaluation and treatment. We appreciate the swift response of our local responders.”
“The company keeps saying that safety of workers is their ‘top priority,’ ” Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, said in a statement. Consumers, she said, “have a right to ask: If that’s true, why do people keep getting hurt, injured and killed at Amazon facilities?”
Emergency responders received a call just before 9 a.m. that 80 workers were complaining of difficulty breathing and burning in their eyes and throat. EMS set up a triage outside the warehouse to treat patients. Fifty-four workers at the facility reported difficulty breathing and a burning sensation in the eyes and throat, Nalbone said. The 30 people treated at the scene did not need further medical attention, he said.
First aid and fire vehicles were seen leaving the warehouse around 11:30 a.m. Just before 1:30 p.m., Nalbone said the building was cleared for re-entry.