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Indiana officials coached Amazon on how to downplay an investigation into a worker’s death at one of the company’s warehouses, according to a whistleblower who spoke to Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. And Indiana ultimately buried the investigation entirely as it tried to woo Amazon into opening its second headquarters in the state.
Other cities and states offered Amazon lots of incentives, including helipads, cash, and exclusive airport lounges for company executives in an effort to win the bidding for Amazon’s second headquarters — HQ2, as it became known. Indiana, however, had something else to offer: amnesty in the case of a worker’s death, according to the whistleblower.
The investigation was allegedly tamped down through a chain of command that reached all the way to the governor’s office, and the state coaching the company on how to reduce fines related to the worker’s death. But now, the workplace safety inspector who investigated the worker's death is sounding the alarm on the company’s poor track record on safety in its warehouses. And he says he’s got tapes to prove it.
“We are doing what Amazon has asked us to do: coordinating efforts with all interested regions of the state to put our best bid forward,” Gov. Eric Holcomb said in the statement about seeking the bid.
When Phillip Lee Terry grabbed his wrench and slid under a forklift to try to fix a piece of equipment in September 2017, the 1,200-pound piece of equipment dropped down and crushed the 59-year-old grandfather. Two hours went by before one of his coworkers saw the blood seeping out from underneath the lift.
The next day, an inspector, John Stallone, from Indiana’s occupational safety agency showed up at the warehouse to investigate the death. He quickly figured out that a pole should’ve been used to prop up the equipment and asked Amazon for documentation that Terry had been trained on how to use the equipment.
But Terry had only been informally trained on the job by a coworker. And Terry’s coworkers said in signed statements that the culture of safety at the warehouse was lax. The emphasis, instead, was on getting the product moved as quickly as possible.
“There’s no training, there’s no safety. It’s ‘Get ’er done,’” one of the coworkers said in a statement, according to Reveal.
Stallone issued four workplace safety citations to the company, which carried a total fine of $28,000. Then the pushback from his bosses started.
The head of Indiana’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Julie Alexander, suggested on a call with Amazon high-ups that they could group the citations together to lower the fines — and pitched a partnership between her agency and Amazon to promote workplace best-practices in the logistics industry, according to Reveal.
Concerned about what he was hearing, Stallone secretly recorded the conversation.
He later met with Indiana Labor Commissioner Rick Ruble and Indiana Gov. Holcomb, who allegedly told Stallone how much it would mean to the state to win the HQ2 bid. Both officials deny the meeting ever happened.
Stallone resigned on Dec. 6, 2017 and soon sent an email to a worker at the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration that suggested that the reason his investigation had been dropped was because Indiana wanted to win the HQ2 bid.
That same day, Amazon donated $1,000 to Holcomb’s reelection campaign — the company hadn’t donated to him before and hasn’t since.
A few months later, after Amazon appealed the citations, the state deleted all of them.
“There’s a dramatic level of under-recording of safety incidents across the industry — we recognized this in 2016 and began to take an aggressive stance on recording injuries no matter how big or small,” the company said in a statement about the investigation.
But this isn’t the first time the company has come under fire for its safety practices. Last year, 24 Amazon workers were hospitalized after a robotic arm punctured a can of bear spray. In September, another worker died on the job after suffering a heart attack in the warehouse. He laid on the floor for 20 minutes before receiving any medical attention.
And just this week, Gizmodo got its hands on leaked internal Amazon documents that show workplace injuries at the company’s Staten Island warehouse occur at three times the logistics industry average.
Cover image: Workers operate forklifts along a row of inventory shelves, Friday, Feb. 13, 2015, during a media tour of a new Amazon.com fulfillment center. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)