Tornadoes rocked six states on Friday, killing dozens. Among the dead were six workers at an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, which collapsed as they sought refuge inside. The incident is now the subject of an OSHA investigation.
The mass casualty event will likely be “the deadliest tornado system in Kentucky history,” according to ABC. Hurricanes also landed in December, outside of normal hurricane season. While this may be a very extreme weather event for many reasons, Amazon’s decision to schedule its workers during the deadly conditions is not. Reportedly, by the time the hurricane touched down in the warehouse’s parking lot — with estimated winds of 155 miles per hour — the facility was not only operating but underwent a shift change.
Amazon operates an astonishing number of fulfillment, sorting, and delivery centers across the country, and as a result, the forces of nature are bound to take some by surprise. Heavy snowfall on the roof of a warehouse in Pennsylvania forced an evacuation when workers noticed it was shrinking. Two contractors were killed in a wall collapse when a tornado struck without warning in Baltimore.
But so was the National Weather Service warning Of the possible tornadoes 36 hours before the deaths in Edwardsville; In the morning before the storms it Cautious of the “potential threat” of “damaging winds over 60 mph”. Edwardsville is what FEMA classifies as Wind Zone IV, the part of the country most at risk of hurricanes.
Amazon is perhaps best known for the media coverage of its ruthless production goals. But its operating standards produced a pattern of accidents where workers were expected to work during extreme weather events. Warehouses remained open during Tropical Depression Ida in September, as torrential rains caused widespread flooding and killed 14 people in New York. Some Amazon drivers told me they were delivering packages through the floodwaters of Hurricane Irma in 2017.
The camp fire of 2018 was the deadliest and costliest wildfire in California history. The smoke from the devastation also briefly made Sacramento the most polluted city on Earth. Despite warnings from the city about air quality on November 8, an Amazon warehouse there didn’t send its workers home until the afternoon of the 10th.
But by far the most prevalent problem in Amazon warehouses has been the extreme heat. Workers in the Pacific Northwest were expected to turn up for duty during last summer’s historic heat wave that was ultimately considered a mass event. Specifically, a worker complained that some areas of the warehouse in Kent lacked fans, and that the estimated temperature inside was up to 90 degrees. Warehouse workers in New York also reported fainting and excessive heat around the same time. In May of this year, excessive heat led to a death inside the company’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.
These are just some of the latest examples. Workers have been making similar complaints for at least a decade about dangerous temperatures inside Amazon’s facilities in Chicago, Portland and Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, among others. Even in the absence of immediate symptoms such as fainting, vomiting, or heat stroke, long-term exposure to heat can exacerbate existing health problems such as heart disease and asthma.
None of this speaks of criticism of Amazon’s safety measures related to COVID-19, or the objectively high rate of infections compared to other warehousing operations.
The concern is that, according to the vast majority of the scientific community, extreme winds, rain and heat are likely to be made worse by man-made climate change. However, Amazon has not provided a satisfactory explanation for why it continues to schedule shifts during potentially deadly weather, nor will it provide Engadget with any details of the severe weather plan in effect at the Edwardsville facility.
“We are deeply saddened by the news of the death of members of the Amazon family as a result of the storm in Edwardsville, Illinois,” an Amazon spokesperson told Engadget. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their loved ones and everyone affected by the cyclone. We also want to thank all first responders for their ongoing efforts at the site. We continue to provide support to our staff and partners in the area.”
If you are an Amazon employee or contractor and would like to discuss workplace issues confidentially, you can reach me on Signal at 646.983.9846
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