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Saturday, April 13, 2024

A Damning US Report Lays Bare Amazon’s Worker Injury Crisis

Amazon was hit with an unusually forceful safety citation by federal investigators in the US today. The findings appear to back up what some workers at the company have long alleged: that the online retail giant’s warehouse and fulfillment facilities are designed for speed over safety, causing lower-back injuries and other musculoskeletal disorders at high rates.

The citation released by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration today concluded that Amazon was “failing to keep workers safe.” The company did not properly protect them from hazards likely to cause “serious physical harm,” the agency claims. Despite years of allegations from workers and state-level investigations into Amazon’s injury rates, today’s action brought the first federal fines imposed on Amazon for worker musculoskeletal injuries.

“The citations are actually very substantive,” says Debbie Berkowitz, a former senior adviser for OSHA and a worker safety fellow at Georgetown University. The investigation was unusually large for OSHA, and it is the agency’s first to require that Amazon implement basic ergonomic principles to prevent injury, she says. The same investigation led OSHA in December to cite Amazon for failing to record and report work injuries and illness.

Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel says the company intends to appeal the agency’s findings. “We’ve cooperated fully, and the government’s allegations don’t reflect the reality of safety at our sites,” she says. “The vast majority of our employees tell us they feel our workplace is safe.” The federal government doesn’t provide specific ergonomics guidance, and Amazon has invested significant time and money in lowering musculoskeletal risk, Nantel says, citing Amazon data that shows injury rates falling almost 15 percent between 2019 and 2021.

OSHA’s findings today echo research from a coalition of labor unions based on past injury data from the agency that concluded Amazon’s warehouse injury rates are often at least double that of Walmart, its nearest competitor in size and scope. During the 2022 holiday season, warehouse workers described to WIRED their personal battles with exhaustion from overwork, wrist injuries, loud noise, and high-speed productivity expectations. 

The severity of the condemnation in the new federal citation was not matched by the penalty. If Amazon loses its planned appeal, it will have to pay a proposed fine of $60,269—a trifling amount relative to its nearly $1 trillion market capitalization.

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OSHA fines for very specific, repeated, and drastic violations can increase to millions of dollars. The oil company BP has faced multiple fines amounting to over $10 million for spills and refinery accident-related violations. But the cap on fines for the types of safety violations that can cause back injuries, fractures, or sprains is much lower, creating little financial incentive for companies to change. “OSHA's fines have historically been incredibly low, but the company got the highest fines possible, I believe, for every violation cited,” Berkowitz of Georgetown says.

OSHA generally tries to persuade companies like Amazon to prevent future injuries through detailed letters of inspection that include suggestions to improve processes causing injury. Those “hazard” letters were sent on January 17 to three Amazon facilities that OSHA inspected during the course of this investigation, in Deltona, Florida; Waukegan, Illinois; and New Windsor, New York.One letter sent to the Waukegan facility describes more than 20 sprains, fractures, bruises, and lacerations to feet, arms, faces, and other body parts caused by workers losing control of packages weighing over 50 pounds.

Another, sent to the Deltona facility, described “inadequate supervision of clinical personnel with appropriate clinical skills” at Amazon’s internal clinic for workers, including incidents where athletic trainers conducted or supervised examinations beyond the scope of their licensing. “Amazon does not appear to have any quality management processes in place for its clinical staff with major deficiencies in documenting care. This represents a dramatic deviation from standard practices for clinicians in the US,” the inspectors at the Deltona facility wrote in the letter.

OSHA does not appear to be finished with Amazon. Details in the hazard letters and the scope of the findings suggest an ongoing investigation and likely more citations and fines, Berkowitz says. The agency said today that it continues to investigate three additional Amazon facilities, in Aurora, Colorado; Nampa, Idaho; and Castleton, New York.

“While Amazon has developed impressive systems to make sure its customers' orders are shipped efficiently and quickly, the company has failed to show the same level of commitment to protecting the safety and well-being of its workers,” said Doug Parker, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health in OSHA’s announcement today. Amazon may soon be fighting more than one citation from the agency.

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