Amazon staff had to use bathrooms as tornado shelters

At least six people died after a tornado hit an Amazon facility.
At least six people died after a tornado hit an Amazon facility.
Image: Reuters
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As a tornado neared an Amazon delivery station in Edwardsville, in western Illinois, drivers and other staff were told to head to the bathrooms, because the building lacked better basement shelters. One of at least six people who’ve been confirmed dead was in a bathroom when the tornado hit on the night of Dec. 10.

The tornado was one of several that ripped through six US states, killing around 60 people. The particular tornado that struck Amazon’s facility, minutes after a warning siren sounded, came with peak winds of 155 miles per hour, tearing the roof off the building, and knocking its walls over.

According to reports from both Reuters and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, staff and drivers at the facility were instructed to take cover in the bathrooms. How many workers were given this advice is not, as yet, clear; in fact, in the aftermath of the disaster, Amazon could not even confirm how many people were in the building.

Early December is one of the busiest times of Amazon’s year, and the company hires extra workers as contractors to meet the holiday rush. Additionally, the tornado arrived in a moment of flux: towards the end of a shift, when drivers were heading back to the facility. Amazon does not require its contract drivers to clock in and out of the building, the New York Times reported, so no one was keeping track of who was indoors.

Forty-five people made it out of the building alive, but dozens more are feared to be trapped inside. Only seven were full-time Amazon employees.

Why didn’t the Amazon warehouse have a basement tornado shelter?

Amazon did not respond to questions from Reuters about whether its facility’s bathrooms were the designated shelters for tornado emergencies. It was also unclear if the number of bathrooms on the site was sufficient to protect even the 50-plus employees known to be at the site. Amazon has a notorious record of providing fewer bathrooms than necessary for its staff, and for instituting such punishing work schedules that employees relieve themselves in bottles rather than take bathroom breaks.

By themselves, bathrooms aren’t necessarily bad tornado shelters. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that people look for “an inside room, without windows, on the lowest floor. This could be a center hallway, bathroom, or closet.” But the safest spot indoors, the CDC says, is a basement—and the 1.1 million-square-foot Amazon facility, built in July 2020, didn’t have one.

On Sunday, Dec. 12, an Amazon official told the Belleville News-Democrat that the company had a shelter-in-place plan for the Edwardsville facility, which shows that it was aware of the danger of tornadoes in the area. And rightly so: tornadoes are regular visitors to Edwardsville, with at least 11 tearing through the region since 2000. Even so, Amazon decided to build the delivery station last year without the strongest possible level of basement protection.

Further, the first tornado warning for Edwardsville went out a full 40 minutes before the tornado arrived. “Requiring workers to work through such a major tornado warning event as this was inexcusable,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said in a statement. “Time and time again Amazon puts its bottom line above the lives of its employees.”