A 1.1 million-square-foot Amazon warehouse that collapsed in Edwardsville, Illinois was among the buildings hit by a series of deadly tornadoes on Friday that swept across six states, killing dozens of people. The tragedy has put Amazon under scrutiny for purportedly not allowing its warehouse workers to have their cell phones with them at work.
A Bloomberg report published on Sunday provided a glimpse of employee sentiment about the company’s cell phone ban after the incident in Edwardsville, which killed at least six Amazon warehouse workers. The outlet spoke to five Amazon employees, some of whom work in a company facility across the street from the Edwardsville warehouse, who said they want to be able to receive information about deadly weather events through their smartphones.
The Edwardsville warehouse had its roof ripped off by a tornado, which caused its 11-inch thick concrete walls to collapse on themselves. At least 45 Amazon workers made it out safely from the rubble, Reuters reported. The warehouse employs approximately 190 workers across multiple shifts, Amazon said.
According to Bloomberg, Amazon has prohibited employees from carrying their phones with them and requires them to leave the devices in their cars or work lockers. The company loosened its policy during the pandemic, the outlet reported, but has been slowly reinstating the ban in facilities throughout the U.S.
An unnamed worker from another Amazon facility in Illinois told Bloomberg that having their phone with them on the warehouse floor would allow them to contact their loved ones or emergency responders if they become trapped after an extreme weather event.
“After these deaths, there is no way in hell I am relying on Amazon to keep me safe,” the worker said. “If they institute the no cell phone policy, I am resigning.”
A worker at an Amazon warehouse in Indiana echoed the concerns about safety. She told Bloomberg she doesn’t go into work when Amazon decides to keep the warehouse open when potentially extreme weather events are forecast. After consulting information about the weather on her phone, she decides whether to use paid time off to stay home.
“I don’t trust them with my safety to be quite frank,” the employee said. “If there’s severe weather on the way, I think I should be able to make my own decision about safety.”
Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel told Gizmodo on Sunday that the company was continuing to provide support to its team in Edwardsville.
“We’re deeply saddened by the news that members of our Amazon family passed away as a result of the storm in Edwardsville, IL,” Nantel said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their loved ones, and everyone impacted by the tornado. We also want to thank all the first responders for their ongoing efforts on scene. We’re continuing to provide support to our employees and partners in the area.”
Amazon added that it was providing support to the Edwardsville community and would donate $US1 ($1) million to the Edwardsville Community Foundation. The company is also reaching out to the families of the warehouse workers killed during the collapse and providing first responders with accommodations and hot meals.
When asked by Gizmodo whether it would consider changing its no cell phone policy for warehouse workers in light of extreme weather events, the company said that employees and drivers are allowed to have their cell phones. We asked for further clarification about whether employees and drivers are allowed to have their cell phones with them on the warehouse floor, but did not receive a response by the time of publication. We’ll make sure to update this blog if we hear back.
In addition to concerns about the accessibility of cell phones, others have also questioned Amazon’s emergency protocols and infrastructure. Warehouse Workers for Justice, an Illinois nonprofit dedicated to helping warehouse workers obtain dignified and stable jobs that provide livable wages, in a statement on Saturday called on Illinois legislators to hold a hearing on Amazon’s safety practices in its facilities.
“Because of Amazon’s poor record of worker safety in the relentless pursuit of profit, we call on Illinois legislators to convene a hearing to ensure all Amazon facilities are places of safety for workers and that no family has to worry whether or not their loved ones will make it home from work after an extreme weather event,” Warehouse Workers for Justice said.
Amazon told Gizmodo that employees at the site received tornado warnings through various alerts. It said that its team worked quickly to ensure that as many employees and partners as possible could get to the designated shelter in place.