Amazon gets hit Today, U.S. federal investigators issued an unusually forceful security subpoena. The findings appear to confirm what some of the company’s employees have long said: The online retail giant’s warehouses and delivery facilities are designed for speed rather than safety, leading to high rates of lower back injuries and other musculoskeletal disorders.
The citation released today by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration concluded that Amazon “failed to keep workers safe.” The agency alleges that the company did not properly protect them from hazards that could cause “serious bodily harm.” Despite years of worker allegations and state-level investigations into Amazon’s injury rate, today’s action brings the first federal fine for musculoskeletal injuries among Amazon workers.
“These citations are actually very important,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former senior adviser to OSHA and a worker safety researcher at Georgetown University. The investigation is unusually large for OSHA, which is the first time the agency has asked Amazon to implement basic ergonomic principles to prevent injuries, she said. The same investigation led OSHA in December to cite Amazon’s failure to record and report workplace injuries and illnesses.
Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said the company intends to appeal the agency’s findings. “We have cooperated fully and the government’s allegations do not reflect the reality that our website is safe,” she said. “The vast majority of our employees tell us they feel our workplaces are safe.” Nantel said the federal government provides no specific ergonomic guidance, and that Amazon has invested significant time and money in reducing musculoskeletal risks, citing According to Amazon data, the injury rate dropped by nearly 15% between 2019 and 2021.
OSHA’s findings today echo research by the union coalition, which concluded based on the agency’s past injury data that Amazon’s warehouse injury rates are typically at least twice that of its closest competitor, Walmart, in size and scope. During the 2022 holiday season, warehouse workers described to WIRED their personal struggles with burnout, injured wrists, noise and the exhausting expectations of high-speed productivity.
The severity of the condemnation in the new federal subpoena does not match the punishment. If Amazon loses an appeal of its plans, it will have to pay a proposed $60,269 fine — a paltry amount compared to its nearly $1 trillion market cap.
OSHA fines for very specific, repeated, and serious violations can run into the millions of dollars. Oil company BP faces multiple fines totaling more than $10 million for violations related to the spill and refinery accidents. But the cap on fines for the types of safety violations that can lead to back injuries, fractures or sprains is much lower, so companies have little financial incentive to change. “OSHA fines have historically been very low, but I believe that for each violation, the company received the highest fine,” said Georgetown’s Berkowitz.
OSHA typically convinces companies like Amazon to prevent future injuries with detailed inspection letters that include recommendations to improve the processes that caused the injuries. The “dangerous” letters were sent on Jan. 17 to three Amazon facilities in Deltona, Fla., that OSHA inspected as part of its investigation; Waukegan, Illinois; and New Windsor, New York.
A letter sent to the Waukegan plant described more than 20 instances of sprains, fractures, bruises and lacerations to the feet, arms, face and other body parts as workers lost control of packages weighing more than 50 pounds.
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