COVID-19: life as a dentist working in an Amazon warehouse

A dentist has spoken of his experience working in an Amazon warehouse during the coronavirus lockdownLincoln Hirst, a practice principal, lifts the lid on life as an Amazon warehouse employee as the world continues to battle the challenges of COVID-19. 

Working at Garden City Dental in Hertfordshire, Lincoln has spent 31 years at the same practice – 25 of which as principal.

But after lockdown was announced and routine dentistry was halted, he looked for a new role to see out the chaos.

He talks to about working night shifts for one of the world’s biggest tech companies.

What were your motivations behind your decision to work shifts at Amazon?

My practice is 85% private. Whilst I could survive financially for some time, I had no idea how long the practice would be closed or how quickly we could return to our normal turnover.  Initially I was in shock, feeling helpless and worried. After three weeks I decided I needed to take control of the situation and start doing something positive. I had read that Amazon, unlike most other businesses were booming and advertising for temporary staff.

Where are you based?

Unfortunately, it appears Amazon HQ were not looking for pasty, middle aged dentists. However, their Wembley distribution warehouse were looking for, what my late Jewish grandmother would have called ‘schleppers’. I think the correct term is warehouse operative.

Stupidly, I decided to increase my chances of employment by saying I was available for all shifts. I was promptly rewarded with the night shift from 1:00am to 11:30am

How are you finding the work so far?

On the first day we were given a free pair of steel toe-capped boots and a high vis vest. I recall being thrilled with these free, soon-to-be items of torture.

The shift is 10 hours of solid manual work unpacking, sorting and arranging packages. This is so they are ready to go out on the fleet of delivery vans the following morning. The efficiency of Amazon is awesome. They do not have any robots deployed there but turn us into human cyborgs. For some processes we have a tablet strapped to one arm and a scanner on the other.

You pick up a package, scan the label and turn to face a wall of cubbyholes. The correct cubbyhole then lights up, so you do not have to look for it. The computer then checks you have managed to deposit the package in the correct cubbyhole and will not let you move one until this is confirmed. It records how hard you are working so no chance of an extended toilet break.

There appears to be random collections of parcels everywhere, but the computer knows where everything is located, and space and time is maximised.

To be honest, I thought with my experience of running a practice I was going to swan in, show them all how it’s done and be promoted to chief supervisor within a week… I was wrong. These guys have a mental agility that I have yet to get anywhere close to.

Have there been any challenges?

One task involved selecting packages from a conveyor belt and placing them on specific shelves in my 30-foot section.  Sounds simple, and I nonchalantly strolled up and down casually tossing the packages into the correct shelves just as well as my more experienced co-workers.

However, the conveyor belt started speeding up and suddenly I couldn’t keep up. Desperate to hide this from my co-workers, I threw myself over the conveyor belt to stop the packages getting past me and give me more time to identify them.

But, like an unstoppable volcanic lava flow, the packages kept coming. As they slammed into me, it became even harder to see the labels. Seconds later they were overflowing off the belt and crashing onto the floor as I flayed around looking like a tasered octopus. My humiliation was complete when my co-workers casually sorted out the chaos I had caused while still able to keep their sections under control.

At the end of my shift I may end up gingerly lowering my aching body back into my car like some decrepit old timer. But mentally, I have never felt so relaxed –not having the stress of not treating apprehensive patients and running a practice.

What impact has COVID-19 had on your business?

We are effectively closed, just taking it in turns to triage phone calls. All the staff apart from one are furloughed. Despite some income from our small NHS contract we are losing money paying our monthly fixed costs.  One of our associates has volunteered to do shifts at one of the local urgent care hubs.

How have family, friends and colleagues reacted to your new role?

My safety conscious wife reacted in horror, believing I will contaminate the house with the plague. She would ideally like to hose me down with bleach before letting me cross the threshold. My friends have been very supportive once they satisfied themselves this was not another one of my wind ups.

Some may be thinking I am lowering myself to do this unskilled labour. But having been in the same practice for 30 years and knowing my patients so well, one thing I have learnt is never to judge someone’s worth by the nature of their work.

Do your new Amazon colleagues know what you do as a job?

I have not gone out of my way to mention my profession in case my co-workers question my motives. Having said that, on the first day I and another newbie were sent off with a more experienced colleague to lean a new task. He turned to us and asked: ‘So were your lives scuppered by coronavirus?’ It turns out he is a highly skilled puppeteer. He performs in West End shows such as War Horse and has operated the Spitting Images puppets. The other guy is an IT expert who normally does big entertainment events. However, for most of the workers there this is their usual job.

Has it given you any insight that you can translate into the dental practice once routine care resumes?

Absolutely. Firstly, I am looking at scanner-based systems similar to Amazon’s to keep tabs on stock and materials. Secondly, I have been humbled by the patience, friendliness and kindness of the supervisors who have trained me.

I am going to try to emulate them when I return to work especially with regard to the poor locum nurses who cover staff sickness and do not know how I work or where anything is in my treatment room.

What would your advice be for other dentists during this time?

If you have no financial pressures, just enjoy this impromptu sabbatical. It is unlikely you will get another situation like this in your entire career. However, if you are sitting at home bemoaning your fate and worrying about the future then take control of the situation rather than let it control you and do something similar.

It will help pay the mortgage, you will feel good for doing something positive and enjoy seeing how a completely different industry works from the inside.

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