This story was originally published Jan. 19, 2022, and was updated May 16, 2022. This story will continue to be updated as new developments occur.
Amazon warehouse workers have long borne the brunt of the company’s obsession with speed.
As Amazon’s business relentlessly expanded and its famously speedy shipping got even faster, workers have been forced to keep up with increasingly aggressive production demands, putting their bodies at risk for the convenience of customers.
As Amazon warehouse workers racked up many thousands of serious injuries each year, government officials haven’t done much about it – but that appears to be changing. Safety officials have been fining Amazon for making employees work at an “unsafe pace.” State legislation popping up around the country targets Amazon’s work quotas. And shareholders will get a chance to vote on Amazon’s workplace practices.
Those developments all have roots in our reporting.
In 2019, our investigation showed for the first time that injury rates in Amazon warehouses were far higher than the industry average. Then, we obtained internal Amazon data and records that revealed the company had been deceiving the public about its safety crisis – even as injury rates got worse. Injury rates were higher at warehouses where robots increased the pace of work, despite assurances from the company that robots made the job safer.
At the same time, the federal government had been refusing to release workplace injury records for Amazon and thousands of other companies.
Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting sued the federal Labor Department and won, forcing the government to release the injury data it’d been keeping secret. That allowed reporters and other organizations to hold Amazon and other companies across the country accountable for their safety practices. Last year, The Washington Post and a coalition of labor unions used the newly available data to show that Amazon’s warehouses still had a much higher rate of serious injury than competitors.
In April, the labor coalition updated its report, showing that the serious injury rate for Amazon warehouses in 2021 rose to more than twice as high as non-Amazon warehouses.
Still, for years, Amazon didn’t have much to fear from safety regulators. There isn’t a legal limit for how many injuries an employer can have. And there isn’t a federal standard for ergonomic hazards relating to repetitive stress injuries, which are common at Amazon. Companies are legally required to provide safe workplaces. But until recently, safety officials weren’t using their authority to enforce that general requirement to take on Amazon’s high injury rates.
Amazon has declined our interview requests. But CEO Andy Jassy said during an interview on CNBC that the company spent $300 million on safety last year. Amazon, he said, is working on “sophisticated algorithms” to predict when a worker should rotate jobs and “wearables” that detect workers making dangerous moves, and the company issued new shoes with better toe protection.
Jassy’s shareholder letter said that despite these tech advancements, he hasn’t found “a silver bullet that could change the numbers quickly.” But Amazon hasn’t addressed the core issue: the pace of work.
That’s also on the agenda of the Amazon Labor Union, which pulled off the country’s first successful union vote at an Amazon warehouse in April. In addition to demanding better pay and benefits, the union is pushing for longer breaks and more reasonable quotas.
Here are the recent developments:
- The federal government is reassessing how it regulates warehouse injuries: A federal watchdog agency announced in December 2021 that it would scrutinize how safety officials have been handling an increase in injuries at warehouses. The U.S. Department of Labor’s inspector general will conduct an audit to see what actions the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has taken to address the rise in injuries, Bloomberg reported. The agency’s work plan doesn’t name Amazon, but it singles out online retailers promising high-speed shipping, saying: “To accomplish such speedy deliveries, warehouses around the nation have been forced to work ever faster, and some have reported increased pressure to meet production quotas. This may be having a significant impact on the health and safety of warehouse workers.” It also mentions a certain unnamed “leading online retailer” with especially high injury rates.
- State lawmakers target Amazon: A new California law, prompted in part by our reporting, prohibits warehouse companies from enforcing work quotas that prevent workers from going to the bathroom or doing their jobs safely. Workers can even sue to overturn unsafe quotas. Similar legislation has been cropping up around the country. New York became the latest state to introduce legislation aimed at Amazon work quotas. Bills in Washington and New Hampshire failed to pass but may be taken up again. Bills in Connecticut and Minnesota are still under consideration. Democratic Minnesota state Rep. Emma Greenman made it clear which company inspired the bill, saying, “I will work to hold Amazon accountable.”
- Washington state regulators continue groundbreaking citations: In Washington, safety officials took the groundbreaking step of saying a core part of Amazon’s model – pushing warehouse employees to work at high speeds – is leading to injuries and breaking the law. Reveal had reported that Amazon’s DuPont fulfillment center had the highest injury rates of any large Amazon warehouse in the country. State officials then inspected the warehouse and issued Amazon a serious safety citation in May 2021, finding a “direct connection” between the injuries and Amazon’s pressure to “maintain a very high pace of work.” Building on that, Washington officials cited Amazon again in December 2021 for failing to provide a safe workplace at its Sumner delivery station, determining that the pace of work “makes it impractical for workers to follow Amazon’s safety training,” including safe lifting methods. The finding echoes what Amazon workers have been saying for years: that they have to break safety rules to keep up with Amazon’s grueling demands. The citations require Amazon to change its practices, but Amazon has contested them.
In March, safety officials fined Amazon again – this time for $60,000 for “knowingly putting workers at risk of injury,” citing the “unsafe pace” of work. Because Amazon was aware of the hazards after receiving previous citations, regulators issued a more serious “willful” citation, which comes with a higher fine. Washington’s Department of Labor & Industries has now fined Amazon a total of $81,000, stating, “The company has not yet made necessary changes to improve workplace safety and has consistently denied the association between pace of work and injury rates.” Amazon is appealing the citations. “We strongly disagree” with the department’s claims, Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said.
- Amazon is obstructing safety inspections: Amazon has repeatedly tried to block and interfere with safety inspections in Washington, according to court records filed by state officials in December 2021 and first reported by Business Insider. Washington officials went to court to prevent Amazon from undermining its safety investigations. The state hired nationally recognized ergonomics experts to assess Amazon’s practices, but when one of them inspected a warehouse, Amazon told workers that they didn’t need to comply and to immediately leave their stations, then refused to allow the expert to reenter the warehouse, according to the filings. “In light of Amazon refusing to allow the Department to collect data and monitor employees without interference, a warrant is necessary,” according to a court declaration by a state compliance officer. Amazon told Business Insider it disagreed with the claims and would cooperate with inspectors. A judge approved the state’s request for a warrant, ordering Amazon not to interfere with safety inspections.
- Amazon shareholders to vote on workplace practices: The company’s May 25 shareholder meeting will include a vote on a resolution for an independent audit of warehouse working conditions, including how workers are affected by performance metrics. The proposal quotes from Reveal’s reporting, saying, “Investigative reports suggest a ‘mounting injury crisis at Amazon warehouses.’ ” Amazon unsuccessfully tried to keep the proposal off the ballot and is urging shareholders to vote it down. The company cited an improvement in injury rates in 2020, without mentioning that they worsened in 2021. Shareholders will also vote on a proposal to request a report on racial and gender disparities in injury rates. And an Amazon warehouse worker plans to present a proposal asking Amazon to abolish its quotas.
It remains to be seen whether state lawmakers and regulators can force Amazon to fundamentally change its practices.
Will Evans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @willCIR.