The Amazon Effect   //   February 6, 2023

Amazon cited for warehouse safety violations in ongoing federal probe

Amazon is facing another round of citations from the federal government as part of an ongoing investigation into warehouse working conditions. And though proposed civil penalties amount to pennies for a behemoth like Amazon, OSHA’s actions indicate continued federal scrutiny into what goes on inside the e-commerce giant’s warehouses.

On Feb. 1, the Department of Labor cited Amazon for OSHA violations related to worker safety at three warehouses. The citations say Amazon’s warehouses had recognized hazards that could cause injury. They specifically call out “ergonomic hazards,” or activities that could lead to musculoskeletal disorders like back injuries — like significant amounts of lifting, awkward body positioning and long hours. The proposed penalties are $46,875.

Though the civil penalties are set by law and may seem insignificant, some worker advocates say the findings themselves underscore the ongoing concerns about warehouse safety. This gives weight to the government’s investigation, while putting the onus on Amazon to make changes or otherwise respond. 

OSHA’s investigations stem from federal prosecutors’ referrals in July 2022 as part of an ongoing Department of Justice probe out of the Southern District of New York. Back in December, Amazon was hit with citations and $29,008 in proposed penalties for conditions at six warehouses in five states around failures to record and report injuries. 

Debbie Berkowitz, a fellow at Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University and former chief of staff at OSHA, said during a media briefing this week that the citations are “incredibly significant, unprecedented and historic” based on the extent of the investigation and facts collected.

And since there’s no specific law to enforce around ergonomic standard, OSHA has a high burden of proof to be able to back up its claims, Berkowitz said. Until this case, OSHA hasn’t fielded ergonomic experts to investigate warehouses, which indicates a new level of scrutiny.

“Don’t get thrown by the low penalties,” she said, citing that the average is usually around $3,000. “OSHA really grounded their investigation using doctors, ergonomic experts, using all the tools that we have as safety professionals to document when there’s a hazard and what to do to mitigate the hazard.”

The citations direct the company to remedy its workplace hazards that subject workers to back pain and other injuries. That includes using more mechanical lifting aids like pallet jacks and forklifts to unload items and eliminating manual floor loading. It also recommends hazard prevention techniques like reducing the duration and frequency of repetitive jobs.

Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said in a statement to Modern Retail that the company doesn’t believe the allegations reflect the reality at its warehouses. The company points to plans to implement more robotics technologies, and says it has implemented its own resources to recommend ways to eliminate injury risks. It says employees rotate jobs to prevent repetition, have stretching breaks, and reminders at workstations to take breaks.

“We’ve cooperated with the government through its investigation and have demonstrated how we work to mitigate risks and keep our people safe,” the statement sent to Modern Retail said. “We also know there will always be more to do, and we’ll continue working to get better every day.”

But Amazon intends to appeal the OSHA citations. And its response in the ongoing federal probe has included resisting subpoenas about what is happening its warehouses. The Seattle Times reported that Amazon had asked for a six-month extension to respond to inquiries about corporate-level decisions on warehouse safety, but that Judge Michelle Peterson on Monday ordered the company to submit documents on a rolling basis.

Meanwhile, some workers have said that Amazon’s internal practices for workplace safety don’t go enough. Workers in the United Kingdom recently staged a strike, citing pay concerns and safety concerns. Eric Frumin, is the health and safety director at the Strategic Organizing Center, an organization that’s been vocal about hazards and injury rates inside Amazon’s warehouses. Frumin said the OSHA violations underscore how repetitive and dangerous the work can be for Amazon workers. 

“Pick a sport, the most grueling sport there is. Coaches give their teams a break,” he said. “You don’t make a team play for four hours without a break.” 

He also said the citations underscore the historic significance of the underlying investigation. 

“This is about is the federal government stepping in to the preeminent corporation in the entire logistics retail supply chain and saying to them: ‘You designed a global system of moving goods, which is literally designed to injure workers, and you have to fix it,'” Frumin said.