Reports of poor and unsafe working conditions within Amazon’s sprawling web of warehouses have been surfacing for years. A new report alleges that not only did conditions in one Indiana warehouse lead to a worker’s death in 2017 but also that state authorities manipulated a report on the matter in a futile attempt to bring Amazon’s much-vaunted “HQ2” to town.
Amazon worker Phillip Lee Terry was crushed and killed in September 2017 while performing maintenance on a forklift at Amazon’s Plainfield, Illinois, fulfillment center, according to a recent report from the Center for Investigative Reporting. While investigating Terry’s death, Indiana regulators found that he had never been given formal safety training that could have prevented the incident.
“The safety issues I’ve brought up have been dismissed and not dealt with,” another worker at the Plainfield facility told the safety inspector from Indiana’s OSHA department. “There’s no training, there’s no safety, it’s ‘Get ‘er done.'” Ultimately, the department issued four citations to Amazon, totaling $28,000 in penalties.
Burying the evidence
Two months after the accident, the inspector joined his boss, Indiana OSHA Director Julie Alexander, on a phone call with Amazon. He recorded the call, during which Alexander explained to Amazon how to negotiate for lower fines. After the call, CIR reports, Alexander said to the inspector, “I hope you don’t take it personally if we have to manipulate your citations” and discussed how Amazon could perceive Indiana’s flexibility as a positive.
Several days later, CIR reports, the investigator found himself face to face with the state’s commissioner of labor as well as the governor, where he was told to back off or resign. The investigator chose to resign shortly thereafter and warned federal officials about what he had experienced.
The probe essentially ended at that point, CIR says:
A year after Terry’s death, Indiana officials quietly signed an agreement with Amazon to delete all the safety citations and fines. The agreement said Amazon had met the requirements of an “unpreventable employee misconduct defense.” The official record now essentially blames Terry for his own death.
All of Indiana’s manipulation, however, was for naught. In November 2018, Amazon confirmed it would split its new offices between New York City and Washington, DC. (After widespread opposition, Amazon in February scrapped the New York location but is moving forward with its expansion in Arlington, Virginia, a stone’s throw from the Pentagon.)
CIR also describes an incident early in 2019 when a gas leak occurred at Amazon’s Eastvale, California, facility. Several workers were made severely ill by the fumes. One employee who called 911 to report the incident told the dispatcher that Amazon refused to suspend operations and was requiring workers to use personal time if they wanted to evacuate the facility. (An Amazon spokesperson told CIR that workers who complained about the docked time had it reversed.)
As part of their reporting, CIR shared an interactive map to look up worker injury rates warehouse by warehouse. According to their reporting, the most dangerous Amazon facility is in Troutdale, Oregon, near Portland, which reported nearly 26 serious injuries per 100 workers in 2018, about 6.5 times higher than the industry average.
The last mile
In addition to the hazardous warehouse conditions in the CIR report, workers often face unsafe conditions as packages leave the warehouse.
NBC News today published the results of an investigation into Amazon’s delivery logistics business, based in part on interviews with 18 current or former Amazon employees or contractors in 11 states. Amazon now delivers about 50% of all its packages itself, but that rapid expansion has led to “a chaotic environment” where drivers are put in impossible situations, NBC found.
Background checks on Prime delivery drivers are far more sporadic than they should be, NBC found, and lax enforcement of safety protocols within the warehouses can allow basically anyone to get to work. Several sources told NBC that drivers share and swap ID badges without ever having them verified, even though Amazon policy calls for those badges to be examined when a driver leaves the warehouse with a load of packages.
(Amazon told NBC that failing to conduct a background check on delivery drivers is in violation of company policy. But the company “did not say how it enforces that policy, or how often it has received reports of violations,” NBC notes.)
High quotas also lead to drivers making choices that jeopardize their own health and safety in addition to the safety of others on the road. One driver described to NBC an expectation that he would deliver 300 packages in a day (a little under one per minute, not counting the breaks several states mandate in an eight-hour work shift).
“You don’t take your lunch break. You don’t use the bathroom… There were guys peeing in bottles in the van,” he said, including himself in that category. “You speed. You run stop signs in a neighborhood… You start conditioning yourself to just go as fast as possible.”
Going as fast as possible, of course, is a recipe for disaster, and several fatal incidents involving Amazon Prime delivery vans have occurred nationwide. Multiple previous reports have probed the sprawling web of third-party contracting and subcontracting firms that allow Amazon to avoid legal liability in cases of crashes or deaths.