Pain in the neck

Federal inspectors fine Amazon $60,269 for putting workers at risk

Workplace safety has been a key motive for Amazon workers to unionize
Amazon warehouses face an ongoing federal investigation into unsafe labor practices.
Amazon warehouses face an ongoing federal investigation into unsafe labor practices.
Image: Oli Scarff (Getty Images)
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The US Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has fined Amazon for failing to keep its workers safe. Investigators found ergonomic and other hazards at three Amazon warehouses that compromised worker health, including elevated levels of musculoskeletal disorders.

Amazon expected its workers at distribution centers in New York, Florida, and Illinois to lift heavy items over long hours at awkward angles — such as twisting, bending, and long reaches — which can lead to lower back issues and carpal tunnel syndrome, the OSHA inspectors said.

The company faces a penalty of $60,269 for the violations, which is a tiny fraction of the $503 billion in revenue the company made last fiscal year. Yet Amazon still intends to fight it.

Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said in a statement that the company strongly disagrees with the agency’s findings and will appeal the decision, adding that injury rates at Amazon warehouses have declined by 15% in recent years. A recent report by the Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition of labor unions that has analyzed publicly-available OSHA data, found that Amazon employees suffered serious injuries at twice the rate of its rivals.

The investigation into Amazon warehouses

The investigation into the three warehouses began after they failed an initial safety inspection last summer. OSHA detailed a pattern of dangerous conditions at Amazon warehouses in a report dated Jan. 17, citing examples like a 60-pound piece of furniture “crushing/smashing” the face of a worker and a 150-pound fitness machine causing a “strained/sprained” leg.

According to OSHA assistant secretary of labor Douglas Parker, Amazon consistently prioritized meeting delivery quotas over the health of its workers. “While Amazon has developed impressive systems to make sure its customers’ orders are shipped efficiently and quickly, the company has failed to show the same level of commitment to protecting the safety and well-being of its workers,” Parker said in a statement.

The newly-formed Amazon Labor Union has made increased worker safety one of its primary demands. Heather Goodall — a pro-union activist at a warehouse near Albany, New York — complained about unsafe conditions in an interview with the Guardian. “We’ve had packers who had items fall on them. Several complained about concussions,” Goodall said. “You can see wires protruding out. It could cause lacerations. It might take someone’s eyes out.” The Albany warehouse, however, voted against unionization in October.

OSHA also fined Amazon $29,008 in December for failing to accurately record workplace injuries and illnesses at six warehouses, including the same three warehouses fined this week. OSHA is still investigating other Amazon warehouses in New York, Idaho, and Colorado.