You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Amazon warehouse workers suffer serious injuries at higher rates than other firms

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/1/2021 Jay Greene, Chris Alcantara
a man standing in front of a cloudy blue sky: Bobby Gosvener goes for a walk after a May 5 surgery to treat a herniated disk. © Michael Noble, Jr. for The Washington Post Bobby Gosvener goes for a walk after a May 5 surgery to treat a herniated disk.

SEATTLE — Amazon, the second-largest private employer in the United States, is also a leader in another category: how often its warehouse workers are injured.

New work-related injury data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration showed those jobs can be more dangerous than at comparable warehouses. Since 2017, Amazon reported a higher rate of serious injury incidents that caused employees to miss work or be shifted to light-duty tasks than at other warehouse operators in retail.

In 2020, for every 200,000 hours worked at an Amazon warehouse in the United States — the equivalent of 100 employees working full time for a year — there were 5.9 serious incidents, according to the OSHA data. That’s nearly double the rate of non-Amazon warehouses. In comparison, Walmart, the largest private U.S. employer and one of Amazon’s competitors, reported 2.5 serious cases per 100 workers at its facilities in 2020.

chart, bar chart © Provided by The Washington Post

The Post analyzed facility-level injury records from OSHA to arrive at these figures. The Post found that 5,411 facilities used for warehousing and storage — 638 of them owned by Amazon and its subsidiaries — sent reports to OSHA in 2020.

The data did not detail causes for the incidents, but some former OSHA officials, union representatives and Amazon workers place the blame on productivity pressures. The e-commerce giant pushes many of its warehouse staff — particularly those at fulfillment centers, sorting centers and delivery stations — to meet hourly rates to stow, pick and pack items. Critics say those metrics are too onerous and lead to injuries.

“They have unrealistic expectations,” said Bobby Gosvener, who worked at an Amazon warehouse in Tulsa until he was injured late last year.

Bezos acknowledges Amazon needs to do ‘a better job’ for employees after union vote

“We don’t set unreasonable performance goals,” Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who owns The Post, wrote in a letter to shareholders in April, in which he addressed workplace safety issues. “We set achievable performance goals that take into account tenure and actual employee performance data.”

Amazon uses performance metrics to measure productivity, as do many other companies, and it offers dedicated coaching to work with employees who aren’t able to meet expectations, spokeswoman Kelly Nantel wrote in an emailed statement.

In 2020, Amazon spent more than $1 billion on safety measures such as expanding a program that offers stretching, meditation and nutritional guidance, as well as buying personal protective equipment to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, Nantel wrote. The company also hired more than 6,200 employees to its workplace health and safety group, Nantel added.

“While any incident is one too many, we are continuously learning and seeing improvements through ergonomics programs, guided exercises at employees’ workstations, mechanical assistance equipment, workstation setup and design, and forklift telematics and guardrails — to name a few,” she wrote.

Amazon declined to make any executives available for interviews on its workplace injury data. The company also declined to comment on specific data that shows the rate of injuries at its facilities as being higher than rates at rivals. Amazon did not dispute the veracity of the OSHA data, nor The Post’s method of calculating injury rates.

Amazon’s rate of serious injury cases actually declined in 2020 during the pandemic, when the company dispensed with performance tracking for part of the year to give workers more time to wash their hands and sanitize work areas — and hired more than 400,000 full- and part-time workers in its North American logistics operations. Amazon declined to explain why the rate of injuries declined.

Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA chief of staff and senior policy adviser, said she thinks the targets the company sets are too aggressive.

“The pace of work, and the amount of twisting and turning, is enormous,” said Berkowitz, who now works at the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group. “There is a constant pressure to work fast.”

Amazon’s anti-union blitz stalks Alabama warehouse workers everywhere, even the bathroom

The Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition of labor unions that includes the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union, released a report Tuesday that arrived at similar conclusions to The Post’s analysis. The SOC initially obtained Amazon’s injury data from OSHA and provided its analysis exclusively to The Post, before The Post conducted its own independent analysis. The SOC also investigated injury rates among Amazon’s delivery service partners and surveyed Amazon workers about the safety of their workplaces.

“It’s a stunning degree of incompetence,” Eric Frumin, the SOC’s health and safety director, said of Amazon’s injury rate.

Amazon‘s boom in employment — nearly 1.3 million workers worldwide, most of whom work in the company’s fulfillment centers, transportation hubs and grocery stores — is a direct result of its push to change the way consumers shop. The company now accounts for about 40 percent of online retail in the United States, according to eMarketer, as e-commerce surges to 13 percent of total U.S. retail, according to the Commerce Department, pushed even further by the pandemic.

Amazon's long history of company acquisitions

Amazon’s rapid hiring over the past several years has made it the nation’s second-largest private employer behind Walmart. And Amazon announced plans on May 13 to boost its North American workforce by an additional 75,000 employees in its fulfillment and transportation operations, offering $1,000 signing bonuses in some locations and paying an average of $17 an hour.

Pay and benefits have long been a selling point for Amazon. In 2018, after facing political pressure regarding its tough working conditions, the company increased its starting wage to $15 per hour nationwide. The company also gives workers health coverage on their first day and offers retirement benefits.

‘MissionRacer’: How Amazon turned the tedium of warehouse work into a game

But The Post’s analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data and job postings found that in many markets, including ones where the injury rates at its warehouses are highest, the average wage in comparable jobs is higher.

In Tulsa, for example, Amazon’s recent openings include a warehouse job with pay that starts at $18.70 an hour for certain jobs, according to a listing on Indeed.com. While that tops a $15-an-hour warehouse job at a nearby ScottsMiracle-Gro warehouse, it’s below the starting $19.45-an-hour wage Pepsi is offering at a Tulsa warehouse.

Still, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, general warehousing in Tulsa County paid an average of about $11 an hour — lower than Amazon.

Meanwhile, the injury rate at Amazon’s Tulsa warehouse is well above the average among non-Amazon facilities across the country at 13.5 serious injury incidents per 100 workers last year, according to The Post’s analysis of OSHA data.

Amazon’s Nantel declined to comment on specific warehouse data.

California accuses Amazon of hampering warehouse probe

Tulsa Amazon warehouse worker Gosvener did not know about injury rates at the facilities when he took a job there starting at $15 per hour last year, with the intention of taking advantage of its education benefits to become a pilot or paralegal.

The week before Christmas, when the warehouses are busier than ever, Gosvener, 52, returned from a lunch break to find several of the bins full of products he was responsible for moving on a conveyor belt had fallen to the floor because of a belt malfunction. He tried to triage the mess — a decision he made on his own, though his supervisor was aware of it — racing to haul the bins, which can weigh as much as 25 pounds, back onto the conveyor line, even as more fell off.

By the end of the day, Gosvener couldn’t move his arm. The next day, Amazon moved him to light duty, putting him in charge of screening workers for the coronavirus. Two weeks later, a doctor diagnosed Gosvener with a herniated disk.

Gosvener’s serious injury was among more than 24,400 reported cases at 638 Amazon warehouses in 2020. More than 10,800 injuries resulted in employees missing work while they recovered, according to the OSHA data, while about 13,600 shifted to light-duty tasks as a result of their injuries.

Walmart, which filed injury reports to OSHA for more than 242 facilities in 2020, did not respond to a request for comment on its lower injury rate.

Gosvener and his sister Joei McKinley take a break during a walk. Gosvener walks to stay active and speed his recovery. © Michael Noble Jr. for The Washington Post Gosvener and his sister Joei McKinley take a break during a walk. Gosvener walks to stay active and speed his recovery.

Video: Amazon Facing Increasing Scrutiny From Lawmakers and Workers (Bloomberg)

Amazon didn’t dispute Gosvener’s account and acknowledged that he was given leave. But the company pointed to its investments as a measure of how seriously it takes safety issues.

Gosvener’s warehouse published a brochure — “Amazonians Guide to Health and Wellness” — for employees that describes the physical challenges of the job. The brochure, which Gosvener shared images of with The Post, describes the company’s warehouse workers as “industrial athletes.” And it notes that some warehouse employees will walk up to 13 miles a day, while others might lift as much as 20,000 pounds by the time their shifts end. Amazon declined to comment on the brochure.

In Bezos’s April shareholder letter, he acknowledged that the company needed to “do a better job for our employees.” While he disputed claims of brutal warehouse working conditions, Bezos wrote that the company plans to invest more than $300 million this year in safety projects. To that end, Amazon listed new workplace safety initiatives as it reported first-quarter earnings two weeks later.

Amazon admits it was wrong to suggest its workforce never needs to pee in bottles on the job

The company in May said it’s expanding a health and safety program in which workers are coached on “body mechanics, proactive wellness and safety,” with the aim of cutting recordable incident rates in half by 2025. The company said it’s also working with specialists in work-related musculoskeletal disorders to devise programs to prevent injuries.

That’s the sort of injury Gosvener suffered. And he says he would have been better served with more training, rather than the short videos he watched in a kiosk that generally focused on proper procedures for lifting and moving.

“I was never prepared for how to deal with a malfunction,” he said.

Amazon‘s Nantel countered that the company didn’t receive complaints about training from Gosvener, adding that records show he completed more than 56 training courses during his time at Amazon.

chart, treemap chart © Provided by The Washington Post

Amazon, as well as other large employers, must electronically submit a variety of injury data, known as a Form 300A, to OSHA each year. The figures track, among other entries, the amount of hours lost because of injuries, as well as the time hurt workers spend on “light duty” — tasks less grueling than their regular jobs.

Until last summer, the agency released only high-level statistics about workplace injuries, claiming that more detailed data was confidential commercial information. But lawsuits filed by “Reveal” from the Center for Investigative Reporting and Public Citizen, a nonprofit watchdog group, led to a federal court order for OSHA to release the information.

Safiyo Mohamed was another of the workers injured. Her injury happened in 2018. She had taken a job at the Shakopee, Minn., warehouse — her first job in the United States after emigrating from Somalia. She heard about the opening soon after she arrived and took the job when she got the offer.

“I was looking for a better life,” said Mohamed, 26. Mohamed says that she wasn’t aware of the danger of working in an Amazon warehouse and that if she had been, she wouldn’t have gone to work there.

a woman taking a selfie: Safiyo Mohamed was injured at work in 2018, shortly after taking a position at an Amazon facility in Shakopee, Minn. © Courtesy of Safiyo Mohamed/Courtesy of Safiyo Mohamed Safiyo Mohamed was injured at work in 2018, shortly after taking a position at an Amazon facility in Shakopee, Minn.

During the peak holiday season that December, Mohamed raced to move totes with goods off a conveyor belt before the next ones arrived.

Mohamed went to Amazon’s in-house health clinic the day of her injury, where they gave her an ice pack. Her manager let her rest for 15 minutes before sending her back to the same job, Mohamed said.

After a few days of pain, Mohamed visited a doctor Amazon recommended, who told her that she had a slipped disk and that she should avoid heavy lifting at work. Amazon didn’t give her time off, and her supervisor encouraged her to work through the pain, Mohamed said.

“They just kept me working,” she said. “They didn’t care if I was injured or not. They want me to hit this [performance] goal.”

Mohamed left the job eight months later in 2019 and now works for a company that makes medical equipment. The back pain hasn’t gone away.

Overworked and exhausted, warehouse workers brace for a frenzied holiday rush

Amazon‘s Nantel disputed some of that account, saying Mohamed did not seek medical attention for several days after her injury. When she did, on-site medical staff provided three separate first-aid treatments that Mohamed said reduced her pain, Nantel said. The company said there was no indication at that time that the injury was serious.

Amazon also said it accommodated Mohamed with light-duty work during the remainder of her time with Amazon, including washing totes. Mohamed said she was never offered light duty.

Amazon has routinely defended its record, even as reports, such as one last fall by Reveal, demonstrated increasing injury rates. That report showed injuries were “especially acute at robotic facilities and during Prime week and the holiday peak.”

The OSHA data showed that the Amazon warehouse with some of the highest injury incident rates nationwide is one close to Amazon’s headquarters. It’s in DuPont, Wash., about an hour south of Seattle. The rate of serious injury incidents at the DuPont warehouse steadily increased from 7.2 cases per 100 workers in 2017 to 23.9 in 2020.

In Pierce County, Wash., where the DuPont warehouse is located, wages for warehousing and storage workers were $24 an hour, or about $957 a week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent data.

chart, bar chart © Provided by The Washington Post

Last month, Washington state’s Department of Labor and Industries cited Amazon for the hazardous conditions in the DuPont facility. The agency called out Amazon’s productivity targets and how they leave too little time for workers to recover from the strain of work.

“There is a direct connection between Amazon’s employee monitoring and discipline systems and workplace MSDs [musculoskeletal disorders],” according to the citation, which was first reported by the Seattle Times and Reveal. The agency, which fined Amazon $7,000, gave the company until July 6 to form a plan to address its concerns.

Amazon’s Nantel disagreed with the agency’s findings and said the company has filed an appeal, adding that the types of injuries the agency found aren’t unique to Amazon and often occur in an employee’s first six months.

“This is a challenge for the whole industry and we are actively working to invent solutions that reduce MSDs for new employees, many of whom might be working in a physical role for the first time,” Nantel said in an emailed statement.

Amazon needs its workers more than ever, giving them leverage to push for safer warehouses

For eight months in 2018, Vanessa Melesio packed boxes at an Amazon warehouse in Redlands, Calif. The company required her to pack as many as 68 individual items an hour, she said, with some weighing as much as 50 pounds.

Melesio took the $15-an-hour job right out of college, knowing that Amazon often hires people quickly. She had no knowledge of safety issues at the company.

As Melesio, now 26, stepped onto a large, metal cart to lift a heavy box, the wheels began to roll. She landed hard on the concrete floor, and, at first, mostly felt embarrassed. But 15 minutes later, her arm was throbbing. She moved to rest in a breakroom with a supervisor watching.

a woman wearing a hat: Vanessa Melesio packed boxes at an Amazon warehouse in Redlands, Calif., for eight months in 2018. © Courtesy of Vanessa Melesio/Courtesy of Vanessa Melesio Vanessa Melesio packed boxes at an Amazon warehouse in Redlands, Calif., for eight months in 2018.

The clinic at the warehouse offered Melesio some Advil and a heat pack, and eventually she went back to work. Two weeks later, her doctor diagnosed her with a fractured elbow. Melesio asked for a different job, a request she said Amazon wouldn’t oblige.

After her injury, the company recommended that Melesio be put on light duty, but because the facility didn’t have such a position, it asked her to take a leave of absence, which Melesio said would have been unpaid. The company said her application for leave was denied because of a lack of documentation. Amazon‘s Nantel said it tried to contact Melesio via email and phone calls to resolve the issue but couldn’t connect.

Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and six other tech titans made more than $360 billion during the pandemic

Melesio said she tried to resolve the issue with Amazon, only to run into a maze of bureaucracy related to her time off and workers’ compensation claims. In emails she shared with The Post, Melesio told the company she reached out repeatedly to its employee relations staff and got no reply.

The company ultimately fired Melesio for attendance violations, both Amazon and Melesio said. She’s now studying urban and regional planning at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona.

“They don’t care about your well-being,” she said. “If you’re not efficient, you are not worth it to them.”

About this story

The Washington Post used work-related injury and illness data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to calculate the rate of serious injury incidents at Amazon warehouses from 2017 to 2020.

The analysis focused on facilities classified by the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) category “General warehousing and storage,” code 493110. The Post found 638 warehouses in the 2020 data tied to Amazon and its subsidiaries and 4,773 non-Amazon facilities. The warehouses do not represent the full network of Amazon or non-Amazon facilities. The Post applied the same method to find warehouses tied to Walmart. MWPVL International, a Canadian logistics consultancy firm, estimates that about 730 Amazon warehouses are active as of May, although some of those opened in 2021.

The analysis focused on serious injury incidents, those that resulted in workers missing days of work or being transferred to lighter duties. These accounted for 83% of cases in the OSHA data set from 2017 to 2020.

The Post calculated the serious incident rate by taking the sum of cases that led to days missed or duty transfers, dividing that figure by total hours worked by employees at that facility, and multiplying that sum by 200,000 hours (the amount 100 full-time employees would work each year.) The formula, used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is as follows:

(Number of serious injuries / Employee hours worked) x 200,000 hours = Incident rate

This allowed The Post to make comparisons between Amazon warehouses and other U.S. facilities that reported data to OSHA and shared the same NAICS code. An identical analysis was performed to get the injury rate for Walmart and its subsidiaries.

One non-Amazon entry, originally identified by SOC, was excluded in the analysis: A Staples facility in New York reported 319 million hours worked in 2020, more than seven times higher than the next highest entry for any company. A duplicate entry for an Amazon facility in Illinois in 2019 was also excluded.

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from The Washington Post

The Washington Post
The Washington Post
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon