The day after an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, collapsed amid Friday’s tornado, killing six workers, an Amazon employee in a fulfillment center in neighboring Indiana took to the internal message board to vent. “I know it’s the weekend and Amazon was busy blasting Michael Strahan and other wealthy people into space but can we get any kind of statement about the ‘mass casualty incident’ in Illinois,” the employee wrote Saturday afternoon. “I feel something could be said or a plan of action to review tornado and [severe] weather safety could be announced,” adding that “we had tornado touch downs not far” from the Jacksonville, Indiana, fulfillment center.
The complaint, one of several posted to the company’s internal “Voice of Associates” message board and provided to The Intercept, reflects a concern expressed by a dozen Amazon employees who spoke about the lack of workplace safety afforded to workers across the country — not just related to extreme weather events but to hazards in general. Many workers, all of whom requested anonymity to protect their jobs, said they had never had a tornado or even a fire drill over the course of their careers at Amazon, dating back up to six years. Several expressed that they would be unsure of what to do in an emergency. In one case, an Amazon contractor, fearing Hurricane Ida, asked to go home early but was told that leaving would adversely affect their performance quota.
Amazon has not responded to The Intercept’s requests for comment about why employees were not instructed to stay home amid the tornado warnings. The company took an additional step yesterday by encrypting internal help ticket messages about the Illinois facility, making them inaccessible to most workers, according to an employee who provided screenshots before and after the messages were encrypted. Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on why the records had been encrypted.
The messages revealed a communication breakdown in which corporate failed to notify employees about the tornado even as it happened. “Corporate and IT were troubleshooting network outages and found out the building was hit by a tornado from the media,” said the employee who provided the communications. “What the correspondence showed was that initially, nobody knew what was happening. More and more people joined in on the tickets to troubleshoot the issues only to find out from the media that the building was hit by a tornado.”
The narrative was “absolutely heartbreaking,” the employee added. “It looks like they had almost no warning.”
Horrifying details are emerging about the tornado disaster at Amazon's warehouse in Illinois, where at least 6 workers were killed on the job.— More Perfect Union (@MorePerfectUS) December 13, 2021
Before he died, Larry Virden reportedly texted his girlfriend: "Amazon won’t let us leave." He leaves behind four children. pic.twitter.com/3ZRLik9VIs
Now workers are demanding better safety practices to avoid another calamity like the one in Edwardsville. “I’m sure we all have heard about the Amazon in Illinois that got totally destroyed by a tornado,” wrote a second employee in the Indiana fulfillment center, “curious as to why we don’t have tornado drills like we do fire drills?”
“I have been here six and a half years and have never once been involved in a tornado safety drill on my shift, as well as have not taken part in a fire safety drill in about two years,” echoed a third employee. “This whole situation has got me thinking our site really needs to revise its safety drills because you never know when disaster and tragedy can strike.”
Asked why so many employees had not practiced safety drills, Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson, replied in an email, “Emergency response training is provided to new employees and that training is reinforced throughout the year.”
“I have … never once been involved in a tornado safety drill on my shift.”
One former employee, 48-year-old LeeAnn Webster, served on the safety committee at the Amazon fulfillment center in Kent, Washington, from 2016 until last year. Webster said that she repeatedly brought up safety concerns with management but that she was often rebuffed. Of particular concern to her was the lack of safety drills, which she said had not been practiced for several years.
“Drills are the most important part of safety,” Webster said. “It gives you a sense of where you’re supposed to go, and completing the task even in a simulated situation can prepare your body and mind to remain calm. People tend to freak out in emergency situations.”
Webster’s view mirrors that of the federal government. The guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration states that “workers need to be trained and plans need to be practiced to ensure that personnel are familiar with what to do in the event of a tornado.” On Monday, CNBC reported that OSHA had opened a six-month investigation into the Edwardsville warehouse collapse.
Among the few employees who told The Intercept that they had participated in safety drills, many described pandemonium owing to a rushed exercise with little to no direction communicated. “I’ve had better drills in public school,” said an employee at the Indiana fulfillment center.
“I’ve had better drills in public school.”
When an employee in Indiana called for safety drills, a manager told him that “it’s difficult to have every shift participate with people on vacation or on different schedules,” according to internal messages shared with The Intercept. Other employees said they had been told that the drills had been paused due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But Webster said that at her facility, safety drills had not been conducted since well before the pandemic.
“Nope,” she said of the Covid explanation, “it’s because it would cost them a lot of money to stop production long enough to do it.”
In the wake of the Illinois warehouse collapse, Bloomberg reported on workers’ concerns over Amazon’s “phone ban,” a policy prohibiting employees from bringing their cellphones to work. Having already instituted it for years, Amazon temporarily suspended the policy during the pandemic but has since begun to roll it back out. Workers told Bloomberg’s Spencer Soper that they feared implementation in their respective facilities because they would be unable to get weather notifications in the event of another disaster.
Webster said that while phones could help, phone alerts are no substitute for a meaningful safety program. Workplaces at Amazon can be so loud, she explained, that you often wouldn’t be able to hear a severe weather alert on your phone.
Many workers also raised issues with management’s refusal to grant time off so that they could stay home during severe weather. In one case earlier this year, an Amazon contractor in southern Illinois sent a letter to Amazon requesting several hours off his shift in preparation for Hurricane Ida. An Amazon seller support manager replied that the contractor’s performance would suffer.
“They put out an internal memo that says we’re rebuilding, but what are we doing to prevent this in the future? It’s always profit over employees.”
“It’s important to confirm the shipment of orders by the expected date so that customers can see the status of their shipped orders online,” the manager told the contractor. “Orders that are ship confirmed late may lead to increased negative claims, negative feedback and/or customer contacts and negatively impact customer satisfaction.”
Webster said that Amazon’s safety problems extend far beyond extreme weather preparedness. In Minnesota, recent reporting by the National Employment Law Project found that Amazon warehouse workers are injured at more than double the rate of non-Amazon warehouses in the state. “The other big safety concern is people hurting themselves trying to rush to make numbers so they don’t get written up,” Webster said. “There’s no product coming through, your numbers are low, you can get a write-up and possibly lose your job — that is a big complaint. So people would rush, and then they would get hurt.”
“It could just as easily have been us. We would not have been ready,” an employee at the Indiana facility said of the tornado. “They put out an internal memo that says we’re rebuilding, but what are we doing to prevent this in the future? It’s always profit over employees.”