New York State In-depth

Amazon is cited by OSHA for exposing warehouse workers to safety risks

The Labor Department has issued subpoenas against Amazon at three of its warehouses for exposing workers to safety risks, the agency said on Wednesday.

Amazon employees at its New Windsor, NY, Waukegan, Illinois, and Deltona, Florida facilities faced “ergonomic hazards” that put them at high risk for lower back injuries and musculoskeletal disorders, which is reflected in things such as sprains, strains and carpal tunnel, according to the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.

The strenuous working conditions at Amazon’s warehouse, which require employees to spend long hours lifting heavy packages, often in “awkward postures,” contributed to the ergonomic hazards, the bureau said.

Amazon also received a separate subpoena for exposing workers at its Deltona warehouse to being hit by falling boxes of goods.

Amazon faces proposed penalties totaling $60,269 for these violations.

“Each of these inspections found work processes designed for speed but not safety, and resulted in serious injuries to workers,” Douglas Parker, OSHA’s assistant secretary of labor, said in a statement. “While Amazon has developed impressive systems to ensure its customers’ orders are shipped efficiently and quickly, the company has not shown the same level of commitment to protecting the safety and well-being of its employees.”

Amazon officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The OSHA inspections were conducted after receiving recommendations from the US Attorney’s Office for the SDNY. OSHA and the US Attorney’s Office launched an investigation into a handful of Amazon warehouses outside of New York City, Chicago and Orlando in July. CNBC reported in August that the probe had expanded to three additional locations near Albany, New York, Denver, Colorado, and Boise, Idaho.

Amazon is also facing a separate investigation by the SDNY’s Civil Division focused on threats to the safety of workers at the online retailer’s nationwide facilities. As part of the investigation, investigators are also examining whether Amazon correctly reported worker injuries and whether it misrepresented those injuries to lenders in order to obtain credit.

In December, Amazon was subpoenaed by OSHA for failing to record injuries and illnesses, fail to classify injuries and illnesses within the required time, and fail to provide OSHA with timely injury and illness records. A fine of more than $29,000 was imposed for these violations.

Amazon, the second largest employer in the US after Walmart, is regularly criticized by lawmakers, activist groups and its own employees for its workplace safety record. Critics have increasingly focused on Amazon’s use of productivity quotas, arguing that its relentless focus on speed is leading to workplace accidents in warehouses. Several studies by the Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition of labor unions, attributed high injury rates among warehouse and delivery workers to Amazon’s “obsession with speed.”

Lawmakers in New York and California have targeted the pace of work at Amazon warehouses with legislation aimed, among other things, at restricting the use of overly restrictive quotas.

Amazon warehouse workers have previously complained that the company’s work pace prevents them from taking adequate bathroom and rest breaks and leads to unfair disciplinary action.

Worker safety issues are one of several catalysts behind a recent surge in organizing efforts among Amazon employees. Last April, workers at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island in New York voted to form the company’s first US union. Workers at another Staten Island facility rejected a union while a second election at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama is being contested. Since that election, organizing efforts have begun at other Amazon locations across the US

Amazon has previously said it supports workers’ rights to organize, but doesn’t believe unions are the best choice for workers.

Amazon has denied using productivity quotas in its warehouses and denied reports of unsafe working conditions. In April, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy said the company’s injury rates are “sometimes” misunderstood, but he acknowledged that Amazon can do more to improve safety at its facilities.

The company has also stated that it strives to be “the best place to work on earth” and in 2021 added emotion to its list of fundamental leadership principles. Amazon has recently seen some fluctuations in the roles that help oversee this effort, including its occupational safety chief Heather MacDougall, CNBC reported.

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