Amazon told lawmakers it wouldn't build storm shelters in warehouses after fatal collapse

Key Points
  • Amazon won't build storm shelters in its warehouses after lawmakers called on the company to adopt more stringent emergency-preparedness measures in the wake of a deadly building collapse.
  • Six workers were killed in December 2021 at an Amazon warehouse in Illinois after a tornado ripped through the building.
  • The victims sheltered in a bathroom that was in an area of the warehouse struck by the storm.

In this article

The site of a roof collapse at an distribution center in Edwardsville, Illinois.
Drone Base | Reuters

Amazon said it won't build storm shelters in its warehouses after a tornado ripped through one of its Illinois facilities more than a year ago, killing six workers.

"Amazon requires that its buildings follow all applicable laws and building codes," Brian Huseman, Amazon's vice president of public policy, wrote on Jan. 14 in responses to an inquiry from three Democratic lawmakers.

"We have not identified any jurisdiction in the United States that requires storm shelters or safe rooms for these types of facilities," Huseman added in the responses, which were obtained by CNBC.

In December 2021, an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, was severely damaged after a powerful tornado tore through the facility, causing the 1.1 million-square-foot building's roof to collapse, and 40-foot-tall, 11-inch thick walls on the sides of the building to fall inward. Six workers were killed, most of whom were contracted delivery drivers.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Cori Bush, D-Mo., wrote to Amazon in December 2022, seeking more information about Amazon's plans to rebuild the Edwardsville warehouse, and questioning why it didn't have a storm shelter or safe room on site.

Amazon said in its responses that it follows guidelines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Weather Service, and will continue to maintain a severe weather assembly area for workers to shelter in place.

OSHA guidelines say that basements, storm cellars or small interior rooms provide the best protection from a tornado. But the federal government doesn't require specially built storm shelters in warehouses.

All the employees and contractors who died in the collapse were in a bathroom, while those who sheltered in a designated assembly area survived.

Amazon previously said it followed federal guidance to tell employees to take shelter immediately after there was a tornado warning. The tornado likely formed in the facility's parking lot, and struck the building minutes after a storm warning was issued, the company said.

OSHA completed an investigation of the incident last April, and the agency didn't levy any fines or penalties against Amazon beyond ordering it to review its severe weather policies.

In their December letter addressed to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, the lawmakers said the company failed to adequately protect workers at the Edwardsville facility and took issue with the room where employees were instructed to seek shelter during the storm.

"Amazon's apparent unwillingness to invest in a storm shelter or safe room at its Edwardsville facility is made even more concerning by the fact that installing one could be done by Amazon at relatively low cost," they wrote, adding the cost of doing so would be "negligible" for the company.

Amazon is a tenant at the warehouse and the owner is required to restore the facility to its pre-tornado condition, company spokesperson Kelly Nantel told KYTV, the NBC affiliate in Springfield, Missouri.

In the wake of the tornado, Amazon has hired a meteorologist, created new emergency badge cards informing workers of evacuation points and assembly areas, and launched an internal center for monitoring and communicating severe weather events, among other measures.

The families of two employees killed in the building collapse have filed wrongful death lawsuits against Amazon and the companies that built the warehouse.

Reconstruction of the Edwardsville warehouse began in June, according to KSDK, the NBC affiliate in St. Louis, Missouri.

Correction: The letter to Amazon was written by three Democratic lawmakers in December 2022. An earlier version didn't note the correct date nor the split in the Senate and House representatives.