Technology

Fatal Amazon warehouse collapse spotlights safety concerns

The fatal collapse of an Amazon facility in Illinois after a tornado swept the heartland on Friday is putting a spotlight on concerns that critics have raised about worker safety at the e-commerce giant’s warehouses. 

Workers have painted a grim and hectic picture of the Edwardsville, Ill. facility on Friday night — escalating advocate’s calls for the company to rethink dangerous policies and leading the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to open an investigation.

“This is not a singular event, Amazon has a record of forcing workers to work in extreme weather conditions,” said Terrence Wise, a leader and board member at the Missouri Workers Center.

“And I know a tornado is not man made, it’s nature. But Amazon in this instance even did things that made the tragedy worse,” Wise added. 

Officials said six people died at the site, and one person was airlifted to a regional hospital. 

Despite a series of statements released by Amazon after the fatal incident, the company has provided few details about specific protocols that were implemented at the Edwardsville delivery station. 

Worker rights groups said Amazon’s response to the tornado, including calling employees back on Monday amid ongoing recovery efforts, is part of a larger pattern of Amazon overlooking worker safety in pursuit of profit. 

The Athena Coalition and Warehouse Workers For Justice both demanded Amazon answer questions about how it handled the tornado warning, and what protocols and training procedures were in place for such disasters. 

Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said the company is “deeply saddened by the news that members of our Amazon family passed away as a result of the storm in Edwardsville.” 

“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,” Nantel said in a statement. 

OSHA spokesperson Scott Allen confirmed Monday that the agency is launching an investigation into the warehouse collapse. An Amazon spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the investigation, or to questions about calling workers back to the warehouse.

Edwardsville Fire Chief James Whiteford said at a Saturday briefing that recovery operations at the site would continue for about three more days. A spokesperson at the fire department told The Hill on Monday morning that there were no further updates and recovery operations were ongoing. 

The National Weather Services issued a tornado warning at 8:06 p.m. Friday night, roughly 23 minutes before the tornado hit Edwardsville. About three hours before the tornado hit, the storm prediction center issued a tornado watch for Madison County.

Amazon spokesperson Alisa Carroll said the team at the Edwardsville facility “immediately moved to ensure all team members went to the designated shelter in place locations,” when local authorities issued the tornado warning. She declined to detail how many workers were on site at the time, and how many workers made it to the shelter areas. 

Aris Papadopoulos, chairman of the Resilience Action Fund and a Florida International University professor, said the minutes between when the alarm was issued and when the tornado struck provided “plenty of time” for businesses to act promptly and move workers to shelter. 

Reports indicate, however, that there was some confusion at the site, Papadopoulos said. For example, an Amazon worker told Reuters that Austin McEwen, a 26-year-old cargo driver who died on site, had been sheltering in a bathroom at the warehouse. Several employees told the newswire Amazon managers had directed them to shelter in bathrooms.

“That kind of leads me to believe that perhaps the training and the safety task assessments during shifts and so forth may have not been observed as they should be for companies,” Papadopoulos told The Hill. 

“If everybody can be placed into the shelter, assuming the shelter’s capacity is large enough, and it should be for the facility, then there should be no fatalities,” he added. 

Wise said the collapse also calls into question the “integrity” of the building structure — and how Amazon has approached setting up its facilities in the St. Louis area.

“They’re like massive cities, small cities, and they’re put up so quick all across the region,” he said. “It’s just a lot that we need answers for and I’m sure Amazon has these answers.”

The 1.1 million-square-foot delivery station opened in July 2020 and employs about 190 people across multiple shifts, according to Amazon. 

Carroll declined to answer questions about whether the facility hired additional employees for the holiday season, but in October the company announced it would be boosting hiring for seasonal jobs. 

Worker rights groups also said Amazon’s apparent ban on workers using cell phones while at warehouses escalated concerns by limiting workers’ access to outside information and contact with loved ones. 

Carroll, the Amazon spokesperson, said employees and drivers are allowed to have their cell phones. But Wise said that is not the case from what workers have said, including five employees who discussed the ban with Bloomberg.

“I don’t trust them with my safety to be quite frank,” one employee told Bloomberg. “If there’s severe weather on the way, I think I should be able to make my own decision about safety.”

Advocates said Amazon’s call for employees to return to work at the facility, even as recovery operations continue, underscores the company’s shortcomings. 

“Amazon has workers as we speak right now that are back at work. If that doesn’t highlight the callousness of Amazon,” Wise said. 

“Workers shouldn’t have to worry about getting back at this time. They should have the ability to be at home, be with families, be in the community helping to restore the community at this time,” he added. “And Amazon should make that possible, they shouldn’t have to worry about a package at this time in need.”

Tags Amazon Amazon warehouses Amazon workers Illinois tornado

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