Amazon's grip on the U.S. economy has perhaps never been greater than now. In 2020, the online retail giant capitalized on the massive uptick in demand for online shopping—seeing its sales skyrocket by 39 percent. Meanwhile, CEO Jeff Bezos is now worth $200 billion.
But all of this growth has a dark side. A new report released Tuesday by the Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition of some of the country's biggest labor unions, whose findings were confirmed in a separate analysis by the Washington Post, indicates that Amazon's obsession with efficiency and customer satisfaction has come at a steep cost to the workers who fulfill and deliver orders to Amazon customers: rampant and severe workplace injuries.
In 2020, Amazon workers were severely injured more than 24,000 times, at twice the rate of the rest of the warehouse industry nationwide, according to federal data analyzed in the report.
The report, which analyzes data submitted by Amazon to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) between 2017 and 2020, found that Amazon significantly outpaces its biggest competitors in terms of workplace injuries, including Walmart and UPS.
For example, in 2020, Amazon's overall injury rate, at 6.5 full-time employees out of 100, was double that Walmart's, at three full-time employees out of 100. More strikingly, Amazon's warehouse workers are severely injured two-and-a-half times more often than Walmart's.
At Amazon warehouses, injuries are typically caused by repetitive motions— lifting, straining, bending, pushing, pulling–thousands of times over the course of a shift. Severe injuries are defined as those requiring light duty and those preventing workers from returning to their jobs.
"We grew our dedicated workplace health and safety team to more than 6,200 employees and invested more than $1 billion in new safety measures in 2020—expanding programs like WorkingWell, and implementing new technology and processes, PPE, and enhanced cleaning and sanitization to protect against COVID-19," Maria Boschetti, a spokesperson for Amazon told Motherboard.
"While any incident is one too many, we are continuously learning and seeing improvements through ergonomics programs, guided exercises at employees’ workstations, mechanical assistance equipment, workstation setup and design, and forklift telematics and guardrails—to name a few," she continued.
As Motherboard recently reported, rather than lighten its quotas and punitive systems and allow longer break times for employees, the company recently introduced mindfulness practices, positive affirmations, and meditation, under a new program called AmaZen, into its warehouses as part of its plan to reduce injury rates. As part of this program, they've installed tiny rooms, known as "ZenBooths," in their warehouses, to “help [workers] recharge and reenergize."
The report's findings indicate that injuries are even worse for Amazon's delivery drivers. As Motherboard has previously reported, Amazon delivery drivers, who transport packages to customers' houses, are pressured to deliver up to 400 packages a day in a highly punitive environment. Drivers regularly receive instructions to dismantle safety systems in order to meet their quotas, skip paid breaks, and pee in bottles and bags in order to keep up with grueling schedules.
Data from the new report indicates that Amazon workers suffer more injuries and severe injuries on the job than drivers UPS, one of its top last-mile delivery competitors. In 2020, Amazon delivery drivers suffered injuries that required them to take time off work at nearly three times the rate of UPS delivery drivers.
Despite these findings, Amazon injury rates actually went down in 2020, according to the OSHA data, though the company continued to outpace UPS and Walmart. Authors of the report say this is thanks to Amazon temporarily lightening and lifting some of its productivity expectations and disciplinary measures to protect workers from COVID-19.
Those temporary policy changes may have held the solution to Amazon's injury problem—at least the data appears that way. Amazon reinstated productivity requirements in October.