A newspaper has investigated reports about working conditions at an Amazon.com warehouse that serves one-third of the country. Employee claims point to extreme indoor heat, closed doors when it was hot, work rates that couldn’t be sustained and firing threats when workers couldn’t keep up in the heat.
The Morning Call in Allentown, PA, interviewed 20 current and former Amazon warehouse workers over the course of two months and obtained OSHA records through the Freedom of Information Act to find how the agency handled complaints about extreme heat in the facility.
Here’s a partial timeline:
- June 2, 2011: An Amazon warehouse worker told OSHA the heat index inside the warehouse hit 102° and 15 workers collapsed. The worker said employees who left due to the heat received disciplinary points.
- June 3: OSHA told Amazon it had received a complaint and asked the company to investigate. OSHA said six employees had been taken to the hospital the previous day.
- June 9: OSHA inspects the Amazon warehouse.
- June 10: OSHA received a message from an emergency room doctor at a nearby hospital that several patients had come into the ER in the last couple days from Amazon with heat-related injuries.
- June 13: The safety manager at the warehouse sends a letter to OSHA disputing that employees received disciplinary points for leaving due to heat-related symptoms.
- July 25: An Amazon security guard called OSHA to report the heat indoors exceeded 110°. The guard said two pregnant women were taken to nurses and Amazon wouldn’t open dock doors to help air circulation. Employees said the doors were kept closed because of Amazon’s concerns about theft. While no one says the Amazon dock doors were locked, such situations have contributed to some of the largest workplace disasters in U.S. history.
- August 18: OSHA closes its inspection by issuing recommendations to Amazon about how it could improve its heat-stress management plan.
In 2010, when Amazon announced it would open a new shipping hub in the Lehigh Valley and employ “several hundred” workers, the news was welcome. Workers say employment at the warehouse ranges from 900 to 2,000 in peak season.
The jobs pay $11 to $12.25 per hour.
Many of the jobs aren’t permanent. Amazon uses a recruiting company, Integrity Staffing Solutions (ISS) to fill positions at the warehouse. Employees interviewed by The Morning Call say, even though they’re told the temporary positions can lead to permanent ones, that rarely happens.
Of course, since the workers are employees of the recruiting company, Amazon saves on its workers’ comp insurance costs.
According to one Amazon worker who spoke to the newspaper, ISS used another method to keep its injury rate down.
The woman said one day when the heat in some parts of the warehouse reached 110°, she began to feel dizzy. She went to a nurse station.
Within minutes, an ISS manager asked her to sign a paper saying her symptoms weren’t work-related.
The employee took meds for high blood pressure, which can sometimes cause people to be more heat-sensitive.
The woman thought the dizziness was work-related, but she signed the paper anyway because she needed her job. She says she’s looking for another job now so she can get out of the Amazon warehouse.
Amazon took some steps to deal with the hot conditions in the warehouse. The company paid an ambulance service to have paramedics stationed at the warehouse during five days of excessive heat in June and July.
The ambulance company says it saw 20 to 30 people who paramedics helped hydrate and cool down so they could return to work. Another 15 people were transported to area hospitals for further treatment, but none were in critical condition.
And the employees say at about the time of the OSHA inspection, the company changed another policy.
Amazon has an automatic recordkeeping system that gives employees demerits if they leave early.
The safety director at the warehouse says no employees were penalized for leaving work early due to heat-related symptoms.
However, workers tell the newspaper that wasn’t the case until after OSHA got involved.
Amazon has issued a statement that “the safety and well-being of our associates is our number one priority.” The company pointed to steps it took during this summer’s heat waves, but it didn’t dispute any of the newspaper’s reporting.
Of course there are two ways you can look at this story:
- The conditions in the warehouse were too severe. Amazon could do more for its workers. Or,
- Jobs are hard to find. For each worker who couldn’t take the heat in the warehouse, there are probably 10 more waiting in line who would take the job.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.