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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Regulators struggle to rein in Amazon on safety for warehouse workers

SAN FRANCISCO — Amazon on Monday began publicly defending its safety record at a hearing in Washington state that follows more than a decade of complaints about workplace conditions across the country.

State labor regulators allege working at Amazon exposes staff to increased risk of ergonomic injury and musculoskeletal disorders as they awkwardly bend and twist to move goods through the warehouse. The company has repeatedly denied the allegations and said its injury rate is improving. Citing a lack of operational change, Washington state has twice charged the company with willfully violating safety standards, citations Amazon has appealed.

At the Monday morning hearing, Amazon called independent ergonomist Dennis Mitchell as its first expert witness, who testified that he disagreed with the state’s allegations about safety issues at the company’s warehouses.

“The tools they used were not suitable for the work conditions at Amazon,” Mitchell said.

The Washington hearing, which began earlier this summer, comes at a moment of unprecedented scrutiny into Amazon’s health and safety record. Officials with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) opened a national investigation into ergonomic injuries last year and have since issued more than more than a dozen citations. That effort was announced in coordination with the attorney general for the Southern District of New York, which is looking into allegations that Amazon systematically conceals workplace injuries.

Additionally, a Senate committee chaired by Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is investigating the rate at which Amazon workers are injured, as well as employee turnover and productivity quotas.

Combined, those efforts have brought more attention to the inner workings of Amazon’s warehouse operations. Some labor advocates — who have been focused on unionizing the e-commerce giant for several years — are hopeful these investigations will force the company to change, improving working conditions by reducing the demanding pace and adding more tools to help.

But even though the current enforcement attempts follow years of concerns about working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses, state and federal officials continue to struggle to force any substantial changes to the way the company runs its hundreds of warehouses.

“This record of dangerous working conditions has been going on for a long time and nothing seems imminent in terms of change,” said Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “And OSHA doesn’t seem to have sufficient tools to do anything about it.”

Amazon denies allegations that it knowingly puts workers in harm’s way and that it systematically conceals injuries. Spokesperson Maureen Lynch Vogel said the “vast majority” of safety inspections at Amazon don’t result in citations.

“In the minority of cases when there is a citation, we have a right — as does any company — to challenge it and present our case,” she said. “And if we do appeal a citation, it’s because we disagree with the allegations or the recommended changes aren’t appropriate for our type of operations. While we know that there will always be more to do, we’re committed to continuous improvement and the data proves we’re making significant progress on safety.”

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. Interim CEO Patty Stonesifer sits on Amazon’s board.)

The renewed focus by federal and state regulators on safety at Amazon has played out amid a particularly trying year for the company. Long known for explosive growth and transforming the way the world shops, in the past year Amazon laid off more than 27,000 people, shuttered departments and killed off some of its innovative but unprofitable experiments. Multiple executives departed, and morale issues have surfaced for some staffers as the company tries to insist they return to the office — a conflict which came to a head with an employee walkout in the spring.

Workplace safety at Amazon first gained national attention in 2011, when a Pennsylvania newspaper reported that warehouse workers were passing out due to extreme heat — prompting ambulances to wait at the ready outside the building. In the years that followed, more complaints, injuries, inspections and citations accrued at Amazon warehouses around the country.

In 2021, The Post reported that Amazon workers were seriously injured at higher rates than at other workplaces in the same industry. Amazon disputed those figures and said its serious injury rates have since declined.

Washington state started building its case against Amazon that same year, when it inspected a warehouse in DuPont and cited the company for ergonomic safety violations. A subsequent investigation at a warehouse in Kent found the pace of work was putting workers at risk of injury. The state alleged Amazon failed to resolve the issues at the warehouse, and in 2022 brought charges of “willful” violations against the company, levying a fine of $60,000. It fined Amazon another $85,000 last month for more willful violations at a warehouse near Spokane.

While a willful violation is one of the higher penalties health and safety regulators can levy, it’s a small sum for Amazon, which reported $6.7 billion in second-quarter profits.

Amazon appealed the 2022 citation to the Washington Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals. Inspectors with the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) alleged that in addition to putting workers at risk of injury, Amazon also prevented inspectors from coming on-site and tried to prevent the agency from recording workplace activity with cameras and electronic monitors, according to news reports.

Vogel, the Amazon spokesperson, denied these allegations, saying, “When we present our case later this month, we look forward to showing that L&I’s allegations are inaccurate and don’t reflect the reality of safety at Amazon. The truth is that we’re always investing in safety and our efforts are working.”

Even if Washington wins, the case won’t affect other states, said Jordan Barab, the former deputy assistant secretary of labor at OSHA under President Barack Obama. It could, however, serve as a guide.

“It’s useful to know in terms of setting precedence for what other states could do, if they were so willing to do that,” he said.

There are 21 states with independent health and safety administrations that could follow in Washington’s footsteps in pursuit of Amazon, according to Barab. Three states — California, New York and Washington — have passed warehouse worker safety laws aimed in part at regulating its warehouses.

In the year since it announced its national investigation into Amazon, OSHA has fined the company $270,081 for safety violations in more than half a dozen workplaces, according to the agency, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story. The Southern District of New York’s attorney general’s office became involved because of allegations that Amazon was lying about injury and illness statistics, Barab added.

The attorney general’s office confirmed its investigation of Amazon is ongoing but declined to provide additional details. Regarding the Justice Department’s investigation, Vogel said “OSHA’s record-keeping citations confirm that there is no systemic underreporting of injuries.”

Vogel said Amazon takes “the safety and health of our employees very seriously” and is appealing OSHA’s citations. “The government’s allegations don’t reflect the reality of safety at our sites,” she said.

OSHA is a relatively small organization — the agency has said it would take 160 years to inspect every workplace in the United States. The agency recently reached a $1.35 million settlement with Dollar Tree and Family Dollar over blocked exit routes. The settlement followed a coordinated investigation that went on for six years and led to more than $15 million in fines.

Amazon is a bigger company and OSHA’s investigation into injuries is more complicated, said Debbie Berkowitz, former OSHA chief of staff under Obama.

“OSHA is a tiny agency, and these are huge warehouses,” Berkowitz said. “The inspections are very labor intensive” and results could take years.

OSHA and the L&I did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Under President Biden, labor regulators have had the support to pursue companies like Amazon more aggressively, said Georgetown labor historian Joe McCartin, a change from under the Trump administration.

Meanwhile, Sanders’s committee is investigating high turnover and underreported injuries, and no report has been released. While Sanders could call an Amazon executive to testify before the committee as he did with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz over allegations of union busting, ultimately the committee doesn’t have enforcement power against Amazon.

“There’s not a whole lot a congressional inquiry can do besides the publicity,” Barab said.

Amazon said it is cooperating with the congressional committee and that its “invitation to Senator Sanders to tour one of our sites remains open.”

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