Amazon was faced with an unusually powerful security subpoena by federal investigators in the United States today. The findings appear to confirm what some employees at the company have long claimed: that the online retail giant’s warehousing and fulfillment facilities are designed for speed rather than safety, and are highly associated with lower back injuries and other musculoskeletal disorders.
The citation released today by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration concluded that Amazon “failed to ensure worker safety”. The company failed to adequately protect them from hazards that could cause “serious bodily harm,” the agency claims. Despite years of allegations by workers and state-level investigations into Amazon’s injury rates, today’s lawsuit brought the first state fines imposed on Amazon for worker musculoskeletal injuries.
“The quotes are actually very powerful,” says Debbie Berkowitz, former OSHA senior advisor and Georgetown University occupational safety fellow. The investigation was unusually extensive for OSHA, and it’s the agency’s first to ask Amazon to adopt basic ergonomic principles to prevent injuries, she says. The same investigation led OSHA in December to subpoena Amazon for failing to track and report work-related injuries and illnesses.
Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said the company intends to appeal the agency’s findings. “We have cooperated fully and the government’s allegations do not reflect the reality of security at our sites,” she says. “The vast majority of our employees tell us that they feel safe in our workplace.” The federal government does not issue specific ergonomic guidelines, and Amazon has invested significant time and money in reducing musculoskeletal risk, says Nantel, citing Amazon data , showing injury rates fell by almost 15 percent between 2019 and 2021.
OSHA’s findings today reflect research by a coalition of unions, based on the agency’s previous injury data, which concluded that Amazon’s warehouse injury rates are often at least twice those of Walmart, its closest competitor in size and Scope. During the 2022 holiday season, warehouse workers described to WIRED their personal struggles with exhaustion from overwork, wrist injuries, loud noise and high productivity expectations.
The sentence did not match the severity of the conviction in the new federal subpoena. If Amazon loses its projected appeal, it faces a proposed fine of $60,269 — an insignificant amount compared to its nearly $1 trillion market cap.
OSHA fines for very specific, repeated, and serious violations can add up to millions of dollars. Oil major BP has faced multiple fines totaling over $10 million for spills and violations related to refinery accidents. But the fine cap for the types of safety breaches that can result in back injuries, fractures or sprains is much lower, giving companies little financial incentive to switch. “OSHA’s fines have been incredibly low in the past, but I think the company received the highest possible fines for every reported violation,” says Georgetown’s Berkowitz.
OSHA generally tries to persuade companies like Amazon to avoid future violations through detailed inspection letters that provide suggestions for improving processes that cause violations. These “danger” letters were sent Jan. 17 to three Amazon facilities inspected by OSHA in the course of this investigation in Deltona, Florida; Waukegan, Illinois; and New Windsor, New York.
A letter sent to the Waukegan facility details more than 20 sprains, fractures, bruises and lacerations to feet, arms, faces and other parts of the body caused by workers losing control of packages weighing over 50 pounds pounds lost.