Amazon Warehouse Collapse Reveals ‘Wholly Inadequate Safety Culture,’ Warren and AOC Say

In letters between Amazon and Elizabeth Warren obtained by Motherboard, the Senator reprimanded Amazon for responses to questions about a deadly Amazon facility collapse.
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On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

After a tornado struck down on an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois in December, killing six workers, 23 senators and members of congress wrote to Amazon chairman Jeff Bezos and CEO Andy Jassy with a list of questions about their safety concerns in the warehouse.

Today, Senator Elizabeth Warren and representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cori Bush sent a second letter to Bezos and Jassy reprimanding the company for providing a “disappointing” response to their questions in light of a April 26 OSHA report that points to severe shortcomings in Amazon’s emergency action plan at the facility.

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The OSHA investigation found that some workers were unaware of the warehouse’s safety plan and died in a bathroom that wasn’t a designated tornado shelter. In the moments before the tornado struck, Larry Virden, one of the workers who died, texted his girlfriend, “Amazon won’t let us leave.” 

“Although Amazon told us in its January 3, 2022 response that ‘safety is our top priority,’ the OSHA findings revealed glaring gaps in Amazon’s safety procedures,” Warren, Ocasio-Cortez, and Bush wrote in the letter obtained by Motherboard. “These findings reveal a wholly inadequate safety culture at Amazon, which potentially contributed to the death of six workers.” 

Motherboard also obtained a copy of Amazon’s original response to the senators and members of congress dated January 3, 2022. In it, Brian Husman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, wrote that all Amazon employees receive “extensive safety training on their first day….including training on weather events” and “are trained on their site’s [Emergency Action Plan.” Husman also said that Amazon delivery drivers, who are contractors, were also trained on this plan. 

But OSHA’s investigation identified major shortcomings in Amazon’s training at the facility, based on interviews it conducted with Amazon workers and personnel. The agency found that some Amazon employees did not know the location of the warehouse’s designated shelter-in-place locations and did not remember ever participating in any emergency drills.

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Some employees, the OSHA report stated, “were unaware the designated tornado shelter was the restroom located in the northern portion of the building and instead took shelter in the restroom located in the southern portion of the building.” 

“This OSHA finding raises serious concerns about the adequacy of Amazon’s safety training for workers in its Edwardsville facility and other facilities across the country,” Warren, Ocasio-Cortez, and Bush wrote in their rebuttal letter to Bezos and Jassy. 

Responding to the questions about the extent to which managers followed safety protocols in place at Illinois warehouse during the tornado, Husman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy wrote on January 3, “Upon receiving the tornado warning from the National Weather Service at 8:06pm, site leaders immediately implemented the facility’s emergency action plan for a tornado. Our team utilized direct communications, oral and electronic, to instruct employees to shelter-in-place.

But OSHA found that managers at the Edwardsville facility were unable to implement the emergency plan because “the megaphone…to be used to activate the shelter-in-place procedure, was locked in a cage and not accessible.” 

OSHA did not levy any fines or penalties on Amazon for its handling of the deadly warehouse collapse, and an OSHA official said “there’s not a specific citation we can issue in light of the actions at Amazon.” 

The House Oversight Committee also launched a separate investigation into Amazon’s labor practice in April, including the company’s response to extreme weather events such as the Illinois warehouse collapse. 

In their May 11 rebuttal letter to Amazon, Warren, Ocasio-Cortez, and Bush wrote, “Our concerns echo those raised by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform in its investigation into the Edwardsville disaster.” They requested that the company comply with the Committee’s probe and request for documents.