Posted in: In this week's e-newsletter, Injuries, Investigations, Latest News & Views, Lawsuits, OSHA news, working in heat or cold
In September, an Allentown, PA, newspaper published a series of articles about employees at an Amazon.com warehouse working in severe heat. Now, the other shoe has dropped: An employee sued Amazon for exposure to cold conditions.
Police made several arrests. Example: One warehouse employee was charged with stealing $80,000 worth of items during a four-month period and reselling them online.
Warehouse managers suspected that a series of false fire alarms at the facility were related to the thefts. Normally, employees had to pass through metal detectors before they left the building.
But when a fire alarm sounded, not all employees exited through the detectors.
It takes longer for firefighters to respond to a false alarm. Before allowing employees back in, responders would comb through the building to make sure there wasn’t a problem.
In some instances, that took almost two hours. And this is where the problem with cold conditions came in.
Employees without permanent work stations would store their coats in a central location away from where they were working. They weren’t allowed to get their coats before exiting when a fire alarm sounded.
One night in November 2010, the outdoor temperature was 26°F when the fire alarm sounded. The wind made it feel even colder.
Because of their activity levels on the job and temperatures inside the warehouse, many workers were forced to go outside in just T-shirts. Some were even wearing shorts.
Paul Grady was working the third shift that night. A military veteran, Grady, 53, has chronic joint pain and a heart condition which both made him especially sensitive to the cold.
After everyone was accounted for outside, Grady said he identified himself to a manager as someone with a disability and asked to be allowed into the building where some managers were. He says his request was denied and he had to stand outside without a coat for three hours. Amazon puts the time at one hour, 45 minutes.
When Grady went home, he tool painkillers. The next day at work he was in so much pain that he asked managers if he could see a doctor. Managers called an ambulance which took him to an emergency room where doctors gave him morphine.
Grady filed a lawsuit against Amazon. He said his pre-existing condition was made worse by the cold to the point that he couldn’t stand or work.
He alleged in his lawsuit that Amazon managers instructed him to tell emergency medical responders that his injuries did not happen at the warehouse, but he refused.
In an interview with The Morning Call, Grady said the managers told him to sign a waiver releasing Amazon from liability.
Amazon denied that Grady’s rights were violated.
Grady, Amazon and a staffing agency used to hire workers for the warehouse settled the lawsuit. Releasing details of the settlement is barred by a confidentiality agreement.
Other Amazon workers interviewed by the newspaper report more situations in which workers were taken to the hospital via ambulance because of exposure to the cold. The workers say that when they asked to stay warm in their cars, Amazon managers said if they went into their cars they’d be disciplined.
The local fire commissioner says there have been no recent false fire alarms at the Amazon warehouse and the company has assured officials it has new policies in place as business picks up for the holiday season.
Amazon has changed its evacuation policies and bought hats, blankets and hand warmers to distribute during fire alarms.
OSHA also sent Amazon a letter, asking it to address the issue, but the warehouse was not inspected.
Imagine that you are a manager at a warehouse with small, valuable products (such as smart phones, small electronics, etc.). A fire alarm goes off, many workers are wearing T-shirts, it’s below freezing outside with even lower wind chills. It will be well over an hour until employees are allowed back in the warehouse. How would you balance the need to prevent employee theft and prevent more susceptible workers from suffering in the cold? Let us know in the comments below.