More horrific news concerning Amazon workers has gained national attention in April 2018 since the nonprofit advocacy group National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (NCOSH) added Amazon warehouses to their “dirty dozen” list of America’s most dangerous workplaces. Amazon was given the title after developing a pattern of hazardous work conditions that tend to place efficiency and productivity over safety and employee livelihood. NCOSH spokesperson Marcie Goldstein-Gelb released a statement saying “this year, [we] will identify several companies who received specific warnings about safety hazards and failed to correct them. Workers paid the ultimate price for these failures.”
Unfortunately, their bad workplace practices are nothing new. Almost from the start, they have been known to focus most of their attention on fulfilling hundreds of thousands of orders quickly often at the cost of employee safety, who must do their jobs in unsafe working conditions at Amazon warehouses nationwide. A spokesperson for Amazon has responded by saying “we are proud of [the] safety record and thousands of Amazonians work hard every day innovating ways to make it even better.” The group released to report showing that Amazon had “a disturbing pattern of preventable deaths” were seven employees have died in Amazon warehouses since 2013. The report stated that “Amazon workers suffered injuries and sometimes lose their lives in a work environment with a relentless demand to fill orders and close monitoring of employee actions.”
The seven deaths involved various crashes in accidents. Two employees were crushed to death by warehouse forklifts, and another died after being run over by a truck. A fourth employee died in an accident involving an SUV driver, and another worker died of a fatal heart-associated incident that occurred while working overnight. The sixth employee was crushed to death by a pallet loader, and the seventh employee was crushed by an Amazon conveyor belt.
Amazon has pushed back hard against claims that its employees must work in a dangerous environment stating that all employees are thoroughly trained to maintain safety and the company remains committed to improving their safety procedures at all of their warehouses to maintain high standards. The company also states that they continually work to improve their work environment and have released a statement claiming that “while any serious incident is one too many, we learn and improve our programs working to prevent future incidents.”
A Hectic Work Environment Inside The World of Amazon
Business insiders estimate that Amazon delivers over 600 million packages each year, which is nearly two million packages each day, which equals almost two delivered boxes for every American. Fulfilling these orders requires a tremendous, efficient workforce of Amazon warehouse workers, 18-Wheeler truckers, planes, and delivery vans to manage inventories, fulfill orders, and deliver boxes across the nation every day.
Amazon enjoys a lucrative partnership with private delivery companies including FedEx, UPS, DHL, and the US Postal Service. In addition to using private delivery companies, Amazon has begun delivering packages in company vans and has contracted drivers who use their own personal vehicle, which has proven to be extremely dangerous for the delivery drivers eager to earn a living by delivering dozens of packages on tight schedules of four hours or less.
Most Amazon jobs are physically demanding, and the expectations of the management can be extremely high. Many of the serious accidents injuring and killing Amazon employees occur at the warehouse. The most common demanding job at the fulfillment centers are “pickers” who must fetch orders off the shelves to be boxed, packaged, and shipped to Amazon consumers nationwide. Usually, the merchandise picker will hold a scanner gun throughout the shift and run from one wall to another filling an order on an assigned list.
Many pickers will walk twelve miles or more during their eight-hour shift. Managers contract the worker by the information sent to the company computers to the hand-held scanners to determine precisely the amount of time it takes to fulfill orders. Failing to keep up with workplace demands could cost the employee their job. However, keeping up at the fulfillment center or out on delivery to maintain a hectic, chaotic schedule could cause severe injury and, in some cases, death.
To manage productivity, Amazon uses satellite navigation technology to track the worker and prompt them to move throughout the facility using the shortest route to pick the next item for delivery. If the worker cannot meet their goals promptly, they are often received a warning during the shift. Habitual poor performers are usually fired.
Living Out of a Car While Working at Amazon
The Guardian investigated the problem at an Amazon warehouse after an employee shared her story on a YouTube channel on how she lost her home after hurting her back in an Amazon warehouse. The 49-year-old employee stated that her workstation was not equipped with safety gear that prevents products from falling off the shelf to the ground.
The employee stated that she injured her back by working in awkward positions and using a company tote bin to replace the missing equipment. Her injuries left her with the inability to stretch out her right arm which caused challenges to keep up with the hectic demands of fulfilling orders. Her employer offered a heating pad to treat her back but told her to go home every day without pay if she was unable to work.
This scenario went on for nine months until Amazon offered the employee a week’s paid to take leave. It took until June 2018 before Amazon fixed the workstation by installing the proper safety equipment. During that time, she lost her home and began living out of her car in the Amazon fulfillment warehouse parking lot.
During this time, the injured employee was dropped by Amazon’s worker’s compensation insurance company. To make the problem go away, Amazon offered the injured employee a $3500 buyout but only if she agreed to sign an NDA (nondisclosure agreement) to stay silent about her experience and not make any derogatory statements about the company.
The worker declined to accept the buyout offer and has since begun speaking openly about how she was treated by Amazon. An Amazon spokesperson released a statement to Fortune magazine stating “We do not recognize these allegations as an accurate portrayal of working at Amazon… [We have] created over 130,000 jobs in the last year alone and now employ over 560,000 people around the world. Ensuring the safety of these associates is our number one priority. We encourage anyone to come see for themselves by taking a tour at one of our fulfillment centers.”
Unacceptable Workplace Conditions
The injured female employee’s story is not unique. Another former worker suffered injuries to his knees while working in the warehouse and reported that the company agreed to allow him to continue working in a less physically stressful job, but only if the employee “signed a form stating his injuries occurred prior to working at Amazon.”
Additionally, Amazon employees working at the company warehouse in Allentown, Pennsylvania reported an incident in June 2011 when temperatures inside the warehouse exceeded 100°. During this incident, fifteen workers collapsed, and even though the management knew they were suffering heat stress, the injured employees were given disciplinary point deductions that had the potential to lose their job.
The emergency room doctor who treated the injured Amazon workers for heat stress contacted OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) over concerns of unacceptable workplace conditions at the fulfillment center. The management at Amazon knew that there was a problem at the time because they paid for ambulance transport of the injured victims to the emergency room when necessary.
Some Amazon employees have sued the company over concerns about their lunch breaks. All employees are required to complete their tasks before clocking out for a 30-minute break or lunchtime. Many workers have reported they are being physically abused and harassed by their managers who reprimand them about their lack of maintaining acceptable productivity. Some employees have stated that when a worker suffers an injury on the job, they are pressured by management to claim that their injuries are the result of a pre-existing medical problem, so Amazon will not be hit by OSHA for unacceptable working conditions.
In 2014, OSHA announced that they would begin investigating Amazon concerning deaths at the warehouse, including the death of a 52-year-old worker at the Carlisle, Pennsylvania fulfillment center. The employee was working with a motorized pallet jack when it collided with shelving. Doctors determined the employee died of multiple blunt force injuries. In the previous December, OSHA completed the investigation of a New Jersey Amazon fulfillment center employee’s death.
In that incident, the 57-year-old worker was sorting merchandise when he became caught in the warehouse conveyor belt and dragged. The employee was transported to the local hospital where he succumbed to his injuries. OSHA cited Genco, a temporary staffing agency company contracted by Amazon, for a serious violation because they did not certify that a hazardous assessment of the facility was conducted before they assigned employees to work at the warehouse.