Tech

Amazon cited by Labor Department for exposing warehouse workers to safety hazards

Key Points
  • Amazon was cited by the Department of Labor at three of its warehouses.
  • Federal officials found Amazon workers at the facilities were exposed to "ergonomic hazards" such as lower back injuries.
  • Amazon faces ongoing federal probes into its workplace safety record.

In this article

A worker sorts out parcels in the outbound dock at Amazon fulfillment center in Eastvale, California on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021.
Watchara Phomicinda | MediaNews Group | The Riverside Press-Enterprise via Getty Images

The Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued citations against Amazon at three of its warehouses for exposing workers to safety hazards, the department announced Wednesday.

Amazon workers at the three facilities — located in New Windsor, New York, Waukegan, Illinois, and Deltona, Florida — were exposed to "ergonomic hazards" that put them at high risk for lower back injuries and musculoskeletal disorders, which refers to problems such as sprains, strains and carpal tunnel syndrome, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York.

Amazon's strenuous warehouse working conditions, which require employees to lift heavy packages for long hours, often in "awkward postures," contributed to the ergonomic hazards, the office said.

Amazon also received a separate citation for exposing workers at its Deltona warehouse to being struck by falling boxes of merchandise.

Amazon faces a total of $60,269 in proposed penalties for these violations.

"Each of these inspections found work processes that were designed for speed but not safety, and they resulted in serious worker injuries," Douglas Parker, assistant secretary of Labor for occupational safety and health, said in a statement. "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."

Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said the company disagrees with the agency's decisions and intends to appeal. Nantel said Amazon has seen improvements around worker safety as a result of changes to processes in its warehouses, among other things.

"We've cooperated fully, and the government's allegations don't reflect the reality of safety at our sites," Nantel said in a statement.

OSHA inspected the facilities after it received referrals from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York. OSHA and the U.S. Attorney's Office in July opened an investigation into the three facilities. CNBC reported in August that the probe expanded to include three other sites, near Albany, New York, Denver, Colorado, and Boise, Idaho.

Amazon also faces a separate investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office's civil division that centers around worker safety hazards at the e-retailer's facilities nationwide. As part of the probe, investigators are also looking into whether Amazon has accurately reported worker injuries and if it misrepresented those injuries to lenders to obtain credit.

In December, OSHA cited Amazon for failing to record injuries and illnesses, misclassifying injuries and illnesses, not recording injuries and illnesses within the required time, and not providing OSHA with timely injury and illness records. It was fined more than $29,000 for those violations.

Amazon, which is the second-largest employer in the U.S., behind Walmart, has been routinely criticized by lawmakers, activist groups and its own employees for its workplace safety record. Critics have increasingly zeroed in on Amazon's use of productivity quotas, arguing its relentless focus on speed leads to on-the-job injuries at warehouses. Multiple studies by the Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition of labor unions, attributed high injury rates among warehouse and delivery workers to Amazon's "obsession with speed."

Lawmakers in New York and California have taken aim at the pace of work in Amazon warehouses through legislation that seeks to curtail the use of overly restrictive quotas, among other things.

Amazon warehouse workers have previously complained that the company's pace of work prevents them from taking adequate bathroom and rest breaks, and leads to unfair disciplinary actions.

Workplace safety issues are one of several catalysts behind a recent spike in organizing efforts among Amazon employees. In April, workers at an Amazon warehouse on New York's Staten Island voted to form the company's first U.S. union. Workers at another Staten Island facility rejected a union, while a second election at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama is being contested. Since those elections, organizing efforts have begun at other Amazon sites in the U.S.

Amazon has previously said it supports workers' right to organize but doesn't believe unions are the best choice for employees.

Amazon has denied that it uses productivity quotas in its warehouses and disputed reports of unsafe working conditions. In April, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy said the company's injury rates are "sometimes misunderstood," but he acknowledged Amazon can do more to improve safety inside its facilities.

The company has also said it strives to be "Earth's Best Employer," and in 2021 expanded its list of foundational leadership principles to include the sentiment. Amazon has recently experienced some turnover in the roles that help oversee that effort, including its workplace safety chief, Heather MacDougall, CNBC reported.

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