Amazon’s worker safety hazards come under fire from regulators and the DOJ
While Amazon claims its injury rate is coming down, facility-level data released last month from the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration underscores worker concerns, showing that in 2022 Amazon laborers were injured at a rate of 6.9 for every 100. In January, OSHA investigators cited Amazon for “failing to keep workers safe.”
Industrywide numbers for last year won’t be released until November, but OSHA head Doug Parker said Amazon has a history of injury rates that are far higher than others in the warehouse category. In 2021, Amazon’s injury rate was almost 1.5 times the industry average. At some Amazon warehouse locations, Parker said, the rate was as high as 12 workers out of 100.
“That’s more than 10% of the workforce every year who are receiving injuries on the job that are serious enough that they have to take time away from their jobs,” Parker said, regarding those warehouses. “We know that it’s affecting thousands of workers and it’s very alarming.”
Bobby Gosvener is one former worker living with pain.
Gosvener worked at an Amazon warehouse in Tulsa, Oklahoma, until 2020. He said after a conveyor belt malfunctioned that December he was left with a herniated disk that required neck surgery. He’s now on permanent partial disability.
“I have to live with this injury for the rest of my life,” Gosvener said. “I hate to this day even to order through Amazon because it’s so convenient, but every time I look at a box, I think of the process of what went through it and who got hurt in the midst of it.”
Jennifer Crane works through pain at an Amazon warehouse in St. Peters, Missouri, after hurting her wrist in October. She said she tore a ligament from “packing a case of sparkling water repetitively all day, along with dog food and Gatorades.” She wears a brace to help her get through the day.
“After like two hours of heavy lifting, I’m taking pain meds,” Crane said.
She needs the job. Crane became a single mom to her seven sons when her husband died of a heart attack in 2019.
“I’ve got to be able to support them. I have bills to pay,” she said. Crane said she knows she could look for other work, “but right now I’m in the fight to try to make it better there for everybody.”
Crane is circulating a petition at her warehouse asking for a slower pace of work, more breaks, ergonomic changes and equipment updates.
In response to those accounts of injury and pain, Amazon spokesperson Maureen Lynch Vogel said in a statement, “Amazon worked diligently to accommodate both employees and ensure they had what they needed not only to work safely but also to recover. Any claim to the contrary is false.”
Amazon’s self-reported injury rate fell 9% between 2021 and 2022. Beyond warehouses, the e-commerce giant says its injury rate across all worldwide operations, some 1.5 million employees, dropped nearly 24% from 2019 to 2022.
“I don’t dispute that their injury rates may have gone down some over a period of time, but they’re still not good enough,” OSHA’s Parker said.
Strategic Organizing Center (SOC), a coalition of labor unions, crunched OSHA’s new data and found Amazon’s injury rate was more than double that of all non-Amazon warehouses in 2022. According to the report, Amazon employed 36% of U.S. warehouse workers in 2022, but was responsible for more than 53% of all serious injuries in the industry.
Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson, said by email that the group’s findings “paint an inaccurate picture.”
“The safety and health of our employees is, and always will be, our top priority, and any claim otherwise is inaccurate,” Nantel said. “We’re proud of the progress made by our team and we’ll continue working hard together to keep getting better every day.”
“Amazon’s apparent attitude about this is to deny that they have a problem,” said Eric Frumin, SOC’s health and safety director.
Federal authorities are now looking into the health and safety issues, with inspections across seven Amazon warehouses in five states last summer. OSHA issued citations at all seven locations.
“At every single facility we found serious hazards that were putting workers at serious risk of bodily harm,” Parker said. “What is most concerning is the scale. We have every reason to believe that the types of processes where we found hazards in these facilities are processes that are used in Amazon facilities across the country.”
OSHA also acted on referrals from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which pointed to similar hazards in its own investigation of the facilities. Two more warehouses were cited for safety violations by Washington state’s Department of Labor. OSHA also cited Amazon for 14 record-keeping violations, finding that the company failed to properly report worker injuries and illnesses.
Amazon is appealing all the citations. If they’re upheld, the company will have to pay its first ever federal fines for worker musculoskeletal injuries. So far, they total nearly $152,000. The Washington state DOJ fines add an additional $81,000.
Amazon has a market cap of roughly $1 trillion and last year generated revenue of over $500 billion.
“There’s no amount of money that the Labor Department can impose as a penalty that’s going to make a difference to a company that runs through billions of dollars a day,” Frumin said. “What matters is, are they going to respect the need for their workers to be safe?”
In a rare case of federal cooperation, the Department of Justice is also investigating Amazon, asking if the company “engaged in a fraudulent scheme designed to hide the true number of injuries,” according to a January press release. The DOJ’s civil division is looking into whether Amazon executives made “false representations” to lenders about its safety record to obtain credit.
In a statement, Amazon told CNBC, “We strongly disagree with the allegations and are confident that this process will ultimately show they’re unfounded.” The company said it’s expanding the team responsible for record-keeping.
‘If you’re rushing, you’re going to make mistakes’
For Daniel Olayiwola, who’s worked at Amazon since 2017, the primary concern is the pressure to work quickly.
“You have to make sure these rates are met,” Olayiwola said. “Otherwise you’re going to be getting a write-up. Then you’re not going to be getting any opportunities to switch positions or move up at all.”
Olayiwola introduced a proposal at last year’s annual shareholders meeting, asking Amazon to stop tracking workers’ rate of work and what’s called “time off task.” The measure failed.
“It is a big contributor to the amount of injuries we get at Amazons worldwide,” Olayiwola said. “I can hands down say that. If you’re rushing, you’re going to make mistakes and someone’s going to get hurt.”
Olayiwola drives a forklift to pick up heavy items in a warehouse in San Antonio, Texas. He said the slowest acceptable rate at the facility is about 22 an hour, “meaning you’d have to pick an item every three minutes.”
“Which is crazy if the item is a mirror, a dresser, a bed frame,” Olayiwola said. “But you have to keep picking these items and you have to drop them off at these designated drop zones.”
An Amazon spokesperson said in an email that the “pace of work” isn’t referenced in any of OSHA’s citations. But the Southern DIstrict of New York’s investigations at six warehouses cited pace of work as an issue. And three states — New York, California, and Washington — have passed legislation seeking to curtail the use of productivity quotas at Amazon warehouses.
In the meantime, Olayiwola has sought support from United for Respect, a retail worker advocacy group, and he hosts a podcast called “Surviving Scamazon.” Like Crane, he wants to support his family while working to produce change from the inside. His wife is pregnant with their second child, and he calls his work at Amazon a “necessary evil.”
OSHA says similar investigations are currently underway at 10 other Amazon sites, with broader investigations pending at dozens more.