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Sanders and Omar Call on OSHA to Release Amazon’s Injury Records

Current and former Amazon warehouse workers have described how they sacrificed their bodies to keep their jobs.

Immigrant and labor activists participate in a rally outside of an Amazon distribution center on December 16, 2019, in the Queens borough of New York City. Activists voiced concerns about the safety in the Amazon warehouse work environment.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota are calling on the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to provide injury records for all Amazon facilities, citing an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

Sanders and Omar sent a letter to OSHA on Thursday requesting Amazon’s injury records for the last three years, saying producing the data “should be quick and easy.”

Because neither Amazon nor the government would release these records, Reveal spent months compiling individual warehouse records from current and former Amazon workers, who have the right to obtain them from their individual workplaces. Reveal found that in 2018, the overall rate of serious injuries at 28 Amazon fulfillment centers across 16 states was more than double the warehousing industry average.

Sanders, in a separate statement, demanded that the Department of Labor “immediately investigate this rampant abuse.”

“The American people will not stand for the obscenity of seeing Amazon warehouse workers die on the job and suffer injuries at double the levels of the rest of the industry,” he said, “all just to line the pockets of (CEO Jeff) Bezos and his rich friends.”

On Friday, Democratic Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey and Rep. Joseph Kennedy III fired off a letter to Bezos demanding to know why the injury rates at a fulfillment center in their state are so high, citing Reveal’s report that the Fall River warehouse had a serious injury rate nearly triple the industry average.

“As we near the end of the peak season, we are seeking answers about why so many Massachusetts workers are getting seriously injured at Amazon fulfillment centers, and your plans to prioritize the safety of workers at all of your Massachusetts facilities during your busiest period of the year, and at all other times,” the letter said.

The lawmakers asked Bezos a series of detailed questions about injury rates at Amazon warehouses in Massachusetts, setting a Jan. 6 deadline for his response. They also asked the pivotal question of how Amazon considers worker safety in developing its production quotas.

Sanders, Omar and other lawmakers had called on OSHA to investigate Amazon working conditions in July, but their letter this week said the agency, in its response, had not committed to conducting any new investigations.

Amazon officials declined to comment on the lawmakers’ letters. A spokesperson previously told Reveal that Amazon’s high injury rates are due to its diligent reporting.

State Regulators Respond

While Massachusetts is one of more than two dozen states regulated by federal OSHA, several of the most injury-prone Amazon warehouses for which Reveal was able to obtain records are regulated by state OSHAs, including the warehouse with the highest injury rates in Reveal’s sample, in Troutdale, Oregon.

Amazon’s Troutdale warehouse opened in August last year with a promise to bring 1,500 jobs to the town of about 16,000 just outside Portland. But within a few short months, it had earned another distinction: Workers there were being injured at a striking rate.

The warehouse racked up nearly 26 serious injuries for every 100 full-time employees, a rate more than six times the industry average.

Oregon Occupational Safety and Health inspected the Troutdale facility twice in 2018, but records show it issued no fines. Michael Wood, Oregon OSHA’s administrator, said his agency first learned of the elevated injury rates there from Reveal’s report.

“It’s absolutely a concern with injury rates that high, and no, they’re not acceptable,” he said. “Whether they’re a violation of the laws and the rules would depend on further enforcement activity.”

Oregon OSHA has opened a new inspection of the warehouse prompted in part by Reveal’s reporting, according to an agency spokesperson.

A chart showing the 2018 injury records for 28 Amazon fulfillment centers across 16 states. Of these sites, here are the ones with the highest rates of serious injuries – those requiring job restrictions or days off work.

Credit: Gabriel Hongsdusit / Reveal

Current and former Amazon warehouse workers across the country described to Reveal how they sacrificed their bodies trying to keep up with brutal quotas — and keep their jobs. Some said they had to break safety rules in order to keep up, while others said they followed the rules but still ended up with debilitating injuries from the heavy lifting and breakneck pace.

OSHA inspectors can issue citations and fine employers for violations of specific safety regulations. But Wood said that because there is no targeted rule governing ergonomic hazards, it can be difficult to sanction companies for injuries related to lifting, twisting and repetitive stress — the kinds of injuries most common at Amazon, according to the records Reveal obtained.

A federal ergonomics standard was issued late in the Clinton administration, then repealed by a Republican Congress and President George W. Bush in 2001. Wood, who worked for Washington’s workplace safety agency before coming to Oregon’s, helped write an ergonomics rule for that state, but it was repealed by an industry-funded ballot initiative in 2003.

“Absolutely, there’s a gap in regulation,” he said. “That doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do.”

State and federal OSHA officials don’t need a specific rule on ergonomic-related hazards to tackle the problem, explained Debbie Berkowitz, worker health and safety program director at the National Employment Law Project. They can find companies in violation of OSHA’s general requirement to provide a safe workplace, though the bar is higher for proving a violation.

In 2015, for example, OSHA used that requirement to fine a supermarket chain for subjecting warehouse workers to risks including “forceful exertions, repetitive motions, twisting, bending, and awkward postures and combinations thereof that had caused or were likely to cause musculoskeletal disorders.” The company ended up settling with the agency and agreed to make changes to protect employees.

The head of OSHA at that time, David Michaels, said Amazon’s high injury rates should prompt the federal agency to launch a “comprehensive injury prevention initiative, targeting fulfillment centers across the country.”

“OSHA needs to step up to the plate here,” said Michaels, now a professor at George Washington University’s school of public health. State OSHA agencies, he said, “can and should make this a high priority.”

The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries declined to respond to questions, though the state is home to two Amazon warehouses among the 10 worst injury rates in Reveal’s sample. The one in DuPont, Washington, had the second-worst rate after Troutdale, logging more than 18 serious injuries — those requiring job restrictions or days off work — per 100 employees in 2018.

An Amazon warehouse in Shakopee, Minnesota, had 270 injuries last year, constituting a serious injury rate more than triple the industry average. Minnesota OSHA has inspected the site three times in the last three years without citing the company. But Roslyn Robertson, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, said in a statement that passing OSHA’s “minimum standards” doesn’t mean a company is doing enough “when an employer’s workers continue to be injured.”

In California, warehousing is considered a “high hazard” industry because of its high overall injury rate, which allows the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, to conduct targeted inspections. The state is home to at least four Amazon warehouses with 2018 injury rates far above the industry average.

Douglas Parker, Cal/OSHA’s recently appointed chief, said generally, he’d like to see the agency “work smarter and more effectively to protect workers,” including using injury data, but declined to comment on Amazon’s rates specifically and said he couldn’t comment on any planned inspections.

Unlike at the federal level, California has had a special regulation in place for more than 20 years requiring employers to minimize repetitive motion injuries. But Parker said it has been used rarely.

“The high incidence rate of repetitive motion injuries in warehousing and many other industries begs the questions of whether our repetitive motion injury standard is effective in protecting workers, whether we are effectively enforcing the standard, and more broadly what employers are doing to minimize this debilitating occupational disease,” Parker said in a statement.

Protecting “Corporate Predators”

Although 22 states run their own OSHA-approved workplace safety programs for both public- and private-sector employers, the rest rely on federal OSHA to regulate workplace health and safety in their states. The federal agency has jurisdiction in Colorado, New York and Massachusetts, for example, where Amazon warehouses had 2018 serious injury rates more than double the national average for warehousing.

Simone Walter, a spokesperson for federal OSHA, said the agency has inspected Amazon warehouses and generally inspects workplaces that have serious injury rates of two or more times the industry average. Sixteen of the Amazon warehouses for which Reveal obtained records met that threshold for 2018.

She issued a statement saying, “Employers are responsible for ensuring their work site is free from hazards.”

In the wake of Reveal’s report on Amazon’s high injury numbers, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., issued a statement calling the injury numbers “alarming” and saying they must be addressed “both by Amazon, and by the federal regulators who are supposed to be keeping employees safe at work.”

Merkley said Amazon should re-examine its warehouse practices and collaborate with labor unions and workers to improve safety.

“Under the Trump administration, OSHA has seemingly been more focused on protecting big business and corporate predators than standing up for workers,” he said. “As Reveal’s reporting shows, this corruption of OSHA’s priorities comes at a stark cost for workers whose health and lives are on the line.”

A spokesperson for Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who was asked about the above-average injury rates at two warehouses in his state, said that he was very concerned and that his office will be requesting an explanation from Amazon.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, said she would work with colleagues to “provide any necessary oversight of companies not in compliance with federal standards.” She issued a statement noting the unusually high injury rates at Amazon’s Troutdale facility in her state, saying, “Any facility or company where workers are getting hurt five times as often as others in the rest of the industry needs to take immediate corrective action to protect workers’ health and safety.”

Fellow committee members Reps. Mark Takano and Mark DeSaulnier, both California Democrats, each issued their own statements of concern. Takano represents a district near an Amazon warehouse with the third-highest injury rates Reveal found. Reveal reported on an incident there in which employees were told to keep working despite a gas leak that left some of them dizzy and vomiting.

“These findings are very serious and point to the need for Amazon to face accountability for the poor conditions their workers are being exposed to,” Takano said in a statement “It is unfair, illegal, and immoral for anyone to be forced to work through a gas leak.”

He said it was imperative for OSHA and Cal/OSHA to investigate.

Berkowitz, of the National Employment Law Project, argues that OSHA officials should be targeting inspections of large warehouses.

“The number of injuries at Amazon is staggering. As a regulator, that would have been a huge red flag,” said Berkowitz, who served as chief of staff and a senior policy adviser at OSHA during the Obama administration. “I think OSHA can really use its bully pulpit and should be meeting with Amazon and saying, ‘What are you doing?’ ”

Berkowitz co-authored a recent report on Amazon injuries produced by a new coalition of worker advocacy groups called Athena, which used some injury records obtained and made public by Reveal. The report found that over the past five years, federal OSHA has issued 67 citations at Amazon facilities, totaling $262,132 in fines, but that most Amazon sites weren’t inspected by OSHA during that time.

She also authored a study for the National Employment Law Project finding that under President Donald Trump, the number of OSHA compliance inspectors and the number of work site inspections both have fallen to levels below the two previous administrations.

Berkowitz pointed to a February 2019 inspection of an Amazon warehouse in New Jersey that found the company’s health clinic was preventing injured workers from getting adequate medical care. Amazon responded to Reveal with a statement saying that workers are free to visit a doctor and that its warehouse clinics allow them to “receive the care they need right away.”

“Safety is our top priority,” Amazon asserted.

Instead of issuing citations, OSHA asked the company to voluntarily fix the problem. The inspection was first reported by The Intercept and Type Investigations.

“The company is failing in its legal responsibility to provide a safe workplace, and OSHA is failing in that it’s having absolutely no impact on this company,” Berkowitz said.

This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and Esther Kaplan and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

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