Reveal from The U.S. Centre for Investigative Reporting released a massive report Tuesday morning detailing how Amazon has been hiding the true extent of warehouse workforce injuries for the last several years. Reveal obtained a trove of internal safety reports and weekly injury numbers from more than 150 of Amazon’s nationwide network of fulfillment, sortation, and delivery centres showing a worrying increase in workplace injuries — many serious — from 2016 to 2019.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines a recordable injury or illness as any work-related injury or illness requiring medical treatment beyond first aid, including injuries that require days away from work, restricted work, and fatalities. Depending on the type of injury, an employer has a strict time period in which to report the injury. And those requirements can differ by state. In California, an employer must immediately report any work-related death or serious injury or accident.
According to the documents Reveal received, there were 14,000 serious injuries at Amazon warehouse facilities in 2019 alone. That’s a rate of 7.7 serious injuries for every 100 workers, 33% higher than the recorded rate in 2016 for Amazon and considerably higher than average for the warehousing industry.
Early this year Gizmodo, after obtaining three years worth of similar OSHA documents for one Texas warehouse, found a similarly alarming increase in injuries over time. When asked about this trend Amazon chalked the pattern up to its own supposedly more robust reporting habits. “Studies from reputable organisations and the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics show that companies across the industry under-record safety incidents in order to keep their rates low,” a company spokesperson wrote. “Amazon does the opposite — we take an aggressive stance on recording injuries no matter how big or small.”
Even if that were broadly true across the vast network of facilities it operates, it does little to explain how Amazon reportedly missed its own internal safety targets time and time again. As Reveal wrote (emphasis ours):
Monthly bulletins from Amazon’s environment, health and safety team show that the famously data-obsessed company is well aware of its safety problems. Each month, company officials sent out detailed updates – marked “Privileged & Confidential” – to warehouse safety managers across the country with data, charts and FAQs. They set safety goals and monitor progress closely. But the internal documents show that the company has failed to hit these targets. In 2018, Amazon aimed to lower its injury rate by 20%. Instead, injury rates went up. The next year, the goal was more modest: a 5% decrease. But the rate rose again.
Amazon started outfitting its warehouses with robots in 2014, although not every fulfillment centre has them currently — some legacy warehouses are being converted to Amazon Robotics facilities while others are merely phased out. Injuries seem to be especially prevalent in warehouses that utilise a fleet of robots to help workers sort and retrieve items for shipping, especially during peak seasons like Amazon Prime Day and Black Friday. Amazon has long maintained that automated warehouses are not only safer for its employees, but reduce the amount of time it takes to locate and package an item. Jeff Wilke, CEO of Amazon’s worldwide consumer business, who is retiring soon, once told PBS Frontline that warehouse robots “make the job safer.”
After Amazon opened its eight automated fulfillment centre in 2014, Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president of worldwide operations and customer service, said its automated warehouses help provide a work environment that’s “great for employees.” The injury data seems to suggest otherwise.
Kathleen Fagan, a physician who inspected Amazon warehouses in her capacity as a medical officer for OSHA, told Reveal, “If you’ve got robots that are moving product faster and workers have to then lift or move those products faster, there’ll be increased injuries.” A former Amazon safety manager also told Reveal that the company “vastly underestimated the effects” of how introducing robots into warehouses would affect workers physically and mentally.
Some of the worst offenders of 2019 include: robotic warehouses in DuPont, Washington, which had a rate of 25 injuries per 100 workers; Eastvale, California, with a rate of 19.7 injuries; and Troutdale, Oregon with a rate of 15.4, down from 28.4 in 2018. Non-robotic warehouses with high injury rates include Redlands, California, Tracy, California, North Las Vegas, Nevada, and Fall River, Massachusetts. (The full list can be found here.) By comparison, the industry average for workplace injuries is four per 100 workers as of 2018.
Amazon has received a lot of criticism over the years for the gruelling holiday hours its employees are mandated to work, not to mention the ever-increasing productions quotas. Failing to hit a job metrics can result in a write-up on their record; too many write-ups, a serious infraction, or even a failure to verify that their sick days are being accurately recorded in Amazon’s systems, and they could be fired.
To combat the rising rate of recordable work injuries at one warehouse in Thornton, Colorado, Amazon contracted with a different clinic, Advanced Urgent Care & Occupational Medicine — a clinic whose focus is to treat injuries so “they are not OSHA recordable, if possible” as it says on its website. According to Advanced medical providers, who spoke to Reveal, they were instructed to under-treat Amazon workers and send them back to work, even when those workers needed a day’s rest, modified work, medications, or anything more than basic first aid. As soon as that Amazon warehouse switched providers, its injury rate dropped.
Taking all this into consideration, it’s not surprising how Amazon responded to the covid-19 pandemic either. At least seven warehouse workers — that we know of — had died from the virus by May 2020. France shut down one warehouse for five days. Workers went on strike. Amazon fired an employee who lead one of those strikes and then prepped a smear campaign against him.
And amid all the concerns for workers’ health and safety, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ tacked on $US60 ($84) billion to his personal wealth since the pandemic first dug its claws into the U.S. He’s now worth $US200 ($281) billion.