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How Amazon warehouse policies put workers at risk

Six people died in an Amazon warehouse collapse — why were they there at all?

The tragic collapse of an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois during last week’s historic tornado outbreak in the Midwest is raising questions about the safety of the e-commerce giant’s packing facilities and the policies and protocols Amazon has in place to protect workers during disasters. Despite hours of notice that severe weather was imminent, workers were not sent home before a tornado struck the warehouse and killed six people.

The tornado appeared relatively suddenly, but it shouldn’t have caught warehouse managers off-guard. The official tornado warning from the National Weather Service came just 22 minutes before the tornado itself — but those rushed timelines are typical for tornadoes. More importantly, the National Weather Service warned of a moderate risk of tornadoes the day before the disaster, so anyone running a facility should have known to be on their guard.

But crucially, there was no legal obligation for how the Edwardsville warehouse needed to respond to the warnings. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires most businesses to have Emergency Action Plans, which include evacuation procedures, but US law leaves it up to employers to make the call on whether to send employees home ahead of a natural disaster. A spokesperson for OSHA wrote in an email to The Verge that they were “not aware of any policy or requirement of a business to shut down and send people home.”

Experts in the emergency management field believe it’s unlikely such a policy will ever be implemented at the national scale because of its unpopularity with businesses and how it might cut into profits. Plus, every business is different — and there might be some with more critical operations or with components that could become dangerous if left alone.

“​​They’re never going to make a law or a policy to do that, because it’s the private sector. They can do what they want to do,” says Laura Myers, senior research scientist and director of the University of Alabama’s Center for Advanced Public Safety.

In short, it was Amazon’s choice about whether the tornado risk was severe enough to shut down the factory — and the company chose to keep the warehouse running.

“The event itself has opened the eyes of many to the fact that we’ve probably had this patchwork quilt for a long time, and maybe it’s time to put those pieces together,” says Kimberly Klockow-McClain, a research scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Severe and High-Impact Weather Research and Operations.

Amazon did not answer questions from The Verge about why it decided to keep its warehouses open despite the severe weather. OSHA is currently investigating what took place the night that the tornado tore through.

In an email to The Verge, Amazon PR manager Alisa Carroll said that “emergency response training is provided to new employees and that training is reinforced throughout the year.”

She further added that the company updated its cellphone policy in 2020 due to COVID, “allowing our employees to have their phones with them. All reporting that it’s been rolled back to pre-COVID is simply not true and factually incorrect.” Phones are critical for receiving alerts about severe weather and can be especially vital to workers if their employers aren’t taking action.

Carroll added that “OSHA guidance clearly states to take shelter immediately when there’s a tornado warning. Our leaders on the ground followed their training and did just that, moving quickly to get people to take shelter immediately. That likely saved many lives from this storm.”

US-STORM-CLIMATE
Recovery operations continue after the partial collapse of an Amazon facility in Edwardsville, Illinois on December 12th, 2021. The facility was damaged by a tornado on December 10th, 2021.
Photo by Tim Vizer / AFP via Getty Images

Still, the tragedy fits a troubling pattern of Amazon warehouse workers staying at their posts through extreme and even dangerous conditions. In June, during a record heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, some workers at an Amazon warehouse in Washington state said many workstations lacked functioning fans, and temperatures inside the facility were close to 90 degrees. At Amazon’s JFK8 facility in Staten Island, workers reported in July that the warehouse was too hot, while they were pushed to keep “working at a non-stop pace.”

Workers at the Edwardsville warehouse told The Intercept that they received almost no emergency training and were discouraged from taking time off during natural disasters — something that appears to be common across the company’s warehouses. Courtenay Brown, a worker at an Amazon Fresh warehouse in Avenel, New Jersey, told The Verge that workers there also received little training about what to do in an emergency. “They teach you how to do the job, show you what to do, then you go on your own, and that’s it,” Brown said.

Brown recalled one incident when there was a chemical leak at the facility. “Only the front of the warehouse was evacuated, until the fire department found out ‘Oh wait, there are hundreds of people in the back of the warehouse?’” she said. The employees in the back didn’t know there was an emergency at first, Brown said, and when they realized what was happening no one was quite sure where to go. “We just started screaming at everyone to exit out the dock doors, we tried to get every single person out.”

There are also structural factors that can place warehouses at greater risk. Warehouses are often built using “tilt-up construction,” says Matt May, director of the emergency management department for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas. Concrete slabs are tilted to become walls and then held upright by their connections to the roof. It’s a practice that engineers criticized in the wake of a 2011 tornado that decimated a Home Depot in Joplin, Missouri. That could be a bigger issue for worker safety in the US moving forward, since warehouses have replaced offices as the most common commercial buildings.

Historically, building codes haven’t addressed the severe winds associated with tornadoes, according to Anne Cope, chief engineer at the nonprofit research organization Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. But OSHA’s guidance on tornadoes says to avoid “auditoriums, cafeterias and gymnasiums that have flat, wide-span roofs” — structures similar in shape to warehouses.

“The biggest challenge for [Amazon] is their buildings themselves,” May says.

The tragedy is already galvanizing labor groups, which see it as part of a broader problem with the company. Eric Frumin is the health and safety director for the Strategic Organizing Center (SOC), a coalition of four labor unions that has pushed for actions against Amazon, and says the Edwardsville deaths can be traced to Amazon’s practice of placing customers ahead of workers.

“What is its highest priority? They have not been shy about this: the company says it is obsessed with pleasing customers,” he said in an interview with The Verge. “And everything else, including worker safety, be damned.”

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