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‘They’re more concerned about profit’: Osha, DoJ take on Amazon’s grueling working conditions

‘They’re more concerned about profit’: Osha, DoJ take on Amazon’s grueling working conditions

The federal workplace safety agency has issued citations against the company at multiple warehouses for various violations

The US’s top workplace safety regulator and the justice department are pressuring Amazon to explain safety practices that have led to injury rates for warehouse workers that are on average close to twice as high as the company’s competitors and in one case five times higher.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Osha) issued citations against Amazon at six warehouses in December 2022, January 2023 and February 2023 over unsafe working conditions, ergonomic hazards and failure to properly report injuries.

The warehouses include ALB1 in Castleton, New York; DYO1 in New Windsor, New York; DEN5 in Aurora, Colorado; BOI2 in Nampa, Idaho; MDW8 in Waukegan, Illinois; and MCO2 in Deltona, Florida.

A seventh warehouse in Colorado Springs, Colorado, DCS3, was cited in February 2023 for exposing workers to ergonomic hazards. There are currently dozens of Amazon warehouses with open Osha investigations around the US.

A judge extended the six-month investigation limitation period for three of the warehouses for Amazon to comply with subpoenas as it had not provided all documents demanded as part of the investigation.

A worker in the packing department at BOI2 in Nampa, Idaho, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said they have yet to see any changes since the Osha citations were issued.

“I’m not surprised they found violations in the warehouse. Management is pushing production goals on the workers all hours and safety very much seems to be an afterthought,” they said. “For each process path, there’s a certain production rate you’re expected to meet each hour. In the packing department where I work, they expect at least 200 units per hour, and failure to reach that number often leads to write-ups, warnings and a coaching by a trainer. They send out hourly reminders to everyone about what the expected rate is and how you as an individual are doing in terms of that production goal.”

Michael Verrastro, who worked at Amazon’s ALB1 warehouse in Castleton, New York, for over a year until he was fired in September 2022 weeks before a union election was held at the site, said he often spoke up about the lack of enforcement of safety rules. ALB1 had the highest injury rate of any Amazon warehouse in 2021, with 19.8 serious injuries per 100 workers.

Verrastro was injured in March of 2021. “I had to be rushed by ambulance out of the warehouse to a local hospital. I tripped on the safety wire on a cage, and fell backwards and hit my head on the frame of the conveyor belt. There was a massive amount of blood on the floor,” he said. “It’s sort of hypocritical for Amazon to claim that safety’s their number one issue. It’s a fallacy that they like to put forth that they’re more concerned about safety, when they clearly are not. They’re more concerned about profit.”

Tia Leanza, 61, who has worked in the packing department at ALB1 for 18 months, claimed no modifications have been made at the warehouse since the Osha citations were issued, and that safety is constantly overlooked at the warehouse in favor of an emphasis on productivity, despite claims of it being a priority.

Amazon workers inside a fulfillment center in Robbinsville, New Jersey.

“Amazon really needs to get their act together. They need to put action to their words,” said Leanza. “We have the highest injuries than anybody else in the country. I know a few people who have left in ambulances and have not come back.”

Amazon has faced scrutiny from government officials, labor groups and workers over high injury rates for the past several years. From 2017 to 2021, Amazon’s warehouse injury rates were significantly higher than injury rates of warehouse workers overall. Amazon workers have reported several issues after sustaining injuries on the job, from being forced back to work to being denied workers’ compensation and struggling to obtain proper medical care.

In 2021, Amazon warehouses had an injury rate of 7.7 injuries per 100 workers, compared with 4.0 injuries for every 100 workers at all other warehouses. Amazon’s serious injury rate was 6.8 per 100 workers, compared with 3.3 for every 100 workers at all other warehouses. Recent Osha citations also include recordkeeping violations at six warehouses, with Amazon failing to properly record worker injuries and illnesses.

The state of Washington’s department of labor and industries (DLI) cited an Amazon warehouse in Kent, Washington, BFI4, in March 2022 over injury hazards, the third Amazon warehouse in the state to be issued citations for the issue. Amazon has appealed those citations and filed a lawsuit against the DLI to stay its orders to mitigate the hazards during the appeals processes, after a court had to intervene and order Amazon to stop interfering in safety investigations.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has fielded numerous complaints related to worker safety and organizing, and recently issued a formal complaint against Amazon in regard to the company suspending a union organizer, Brett Daniels, at JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island in New York after the union led a walkout in protest of safety concerns following a fire that broke out at the warehouse in October 2022. Osha is also investigating the complaints of retaliation, which Amazon has denied.

“Rather than respect our legal right to protest, the company responded by suspending every worker involved,” said Daniels. “Amazon’s constant disregard for safety is by design. Like many corporations, Amazon prioritizes profit over people.”

An Amazon spokesperson said in response to the Osha citations: “We take the safety and health of our employees very seriously, and we don’t believe the government’s allegations reflect the reality of safety at our sites. We’ve cooperated with Osha and demonstrated how we work to mitigate risks and keep our people safe, and our publicly available data shows we reduced injury rates in the US nearly 15% between 2019 and 2021. There will always be more to do, and we’ll continue working to get better every day.”

An Amazon fulfillment center in Robbinsville, New Jersey.

Amazon noted that it is appealing all Osha and Washington DLI citations because it disagrees with them. The company also denied having productivity quotas, claiming it only has performance expectations, and called any claims from workers of quotas false.

In regard to delays in providing the subpoenaed documents, the spokesperson added: “We’ve cooperated with the government since the start of their investigation and began producing documents and witnesses immediately. We’ve provided nearly 50,000 documents and dozens of witnesses despite often unreasonable and ever-changing deadlines, and we’ll continue to be compliant with their requests.”

The US Department of Justice is also currently investigating Amazon over injury rates and workplace safety, encompassing all warehouses.

In a subpoena issued by the justice department in September 2022, Amazon was ordered to provide all documents regarding statements made by company executives and management about health and safety, injury rates, compliance with labor laws and regulations, including all documents pertaining to statements made by Amazon’s health and safety department about the pace of work, worker injuries or illnesses that were or may have been caused by the pace of work, all productivity requirements for workers and how the requirements were developed.

Among the law firms Amazon has retained to represent the company in proceedings with Osha and the department of justice is Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, where former Trump labor secretary Eugene Scalia currently works as a partner.

While at the firm in 1999, Scalia won an appeals case to strike down the Osha high injury/illness rate targeting and cooperative compliance program under the Clinton administration and fought to overturn rules to establish ergonomics safety standards for workplaces, which labor department experts noted would have prevented 600,000 injuries a year.

In its citations, Osha delivered alert letters on ergonomic hazards at the Amazon warehouses detailing risk assessments that found numerous jobs at Amazon warehouses exposed workers to “high risk of serious musculoskeletal disorders”.

“These are methods that experts in ergonomics have used for years,” said Eric Frumin, health and safety director at the union coalition Strategic Organizing Center. “Here are the same methods that Amazon’s own internal corporate ergonomics program says the company should use, which is why when you look at the Osha documents it says, among other things, to fix this mess, you should apply your own ergonomics program, which is one of the reasons why the state of Washington classified the violations as willful, because the company knew how to fix these violations, how to identify these hazards – they just fail to do it.”

Frumin emphasized the level of focus and attention Osha was placing on the investigations at Amazon and the Department of Justice’s large scope, which included the company’s entire management structure.

He also disputed that Amazon is cooperating with these investigations, given the extensions judges had to grant due to Amazon’s delays in providing subpoenaed documents and claims from Washington officials that the company attempted to undermine safety regulator investigations.

“What we were just seeing in the citation violation letters are specific recommendations for things that Osha thinks the company could do today or in the near future to make these jobs safer, and it’s up to workers to say whether they’re going to wait for the legal process to happen, or they’re going to demand those changes now,” added Frumin.

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