Amazon’s Speed Creates Disposable Workers

Editors’ Note: Sourced from HillmanFoundation.org, which monthly honors excellence in journalism. This article was published in the November 25, 2019 issue of Reveal, and was awarded Hillman’s December Sidney Award for exposing sky-high rates of injuries at Amazon warehouses. 

By Will Evans

When Candice Dixon showed up for her first day of work at an Amazon warehouse in Eastvale, California, she stepped into a wonder of automation, efficiency and speed. Inside the sprawling four-story building in Southern California’s Inland Empire, hundreds of squat orange robots whizzed across the floor, carrying tall yellow racks.

As a stower, her job was to stand in a spot on the floor, like hundreds of others in that million-square-foot warehouse, and fill an unending parade of merchandise racks. Another worker, known as a “water spider,” would bring her boxes upon boxes of goods – jars of protein powder, inflatable unicorn pool floats, laptops, makeup, Himalayan sea salt, vibrators and plastic toy cars. She’d grab each item out of a box, scan it, lift it onto the rack and scan its new location. She’d use a stepladder to put things on the top of the rack. For heavy items – she remembers the cases of pet food in particular – she’d have to squat down to hoist them in, then pop back up to grab the next item. As soon as she’d filled a rack, she’d press a button and one robot would zip it away while another robot would bring a new one to fill.

The moment an Amazon customer clicked “place your order,” a robot would haul one of those racks to a picker, who would grab the right item for the order and send it on a series of long conveyors to a packer, who would stuff it in one of those familiar, smiling cardboard boxes.

The clock was always ticking on Amazon’s promised delivery time. Dixon had to scan a new item every 11 seconds to hit her quota, she said, and Amazon always knew when she didn’t.

Dixon’s scan rate – more than 300 items an hour, thousands of individual products a day – was being tracked constantly, the data flowing to managers in real time, then crunched by a proprietary software system called ADAPT. She knew, like the thousands of other workers there, that if she didn’t hit her target speed, she would be written up and, if she didn’t improve, she eventually would be fired.

Amazon’s cutting-edge technology, unrelenting surveillance and constant disciplinary write-ups pushed the Eastvale workers so hard that in the last holiday season, they hit a coveted target: They got a million packages out the door in 24 hours. Amazon handed out T-shirts celebrating their induction into the “Million Unit Club.”

Dixon, 54, wasn’t around for that. She started the job in April 2018, and within two months, or nearly 100,000 items, the lifting had destroyed her back. An Amazon-approved doctor said she had bulging discs and diagnosed her with a back sprain, joint inflammation and chronic pain, determining that her injuries were 100% due to her job. She could no longer work at Amazon. Today, she can barely climb stairs…. According to her medical records, her condition is unlikely to improve.

But Dixon, 54, wasn’t around for that. She started the job in April 2018, and within two months, or nearly 100,000 items, the lifting had destroyed her back. An Amazon-approved doctor said she had bulging discs and diagnosed her with a back sprain, joint inflammation and chronic pain, determining that her injuries were 100% due to her job. She could no longer work at Amazon. Today, she can barely climb stairs. Walking her dog, doing the dishes, getting out of her chair – everything is painful. According to her medical records, her condition is unlikely to improve.

Amazon’s famous speed and technological innovation have driven the company’s massive global expansion and a valuation well over $800 billion. It’s also helped make Amazon the nation’s second-largest private employer behind Walmart and its CEO, Jeff Bezos, one of the richest humans on Earth. Now, an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has found that the company’s obsession with speed has turned its warehouses into injury mills.

Reveal amassed internal injury records from 23 of the company’s 110 fulfillment centers nationwide. Taken together, the rate of serious injuries for those facilities was more than double the national average for the warehousing industry: 9.6 serious injuries per 100 full-time workers in 2018, compared with an industry average that year of 4.

“According to Amazon’s own records, the risk of work injuries at fulfillment centers is alarmingly, unacceptably high,” said David Michaels, former head of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, now a professor at George Washington University’s public health school. “Amazon needs to take a hard look at the facilities where so many workers are being hurt and either redesign the work processes, replace the top managers or both, because serious injury rates this high should not be acceptable to any employer.”

Amazon officials declined repeated interview requests. Instead, company spokesperson Ashley Robinson provided a written response to some of Reveal’s questions. Robinson said Amazon’s injury rates are high because it’s aggressive about recording worker injuries and cautious about allowing injured workers to return to work before they’re ready.

Many workers said that was not their experience. They spoke with outrage about having been cast aside as damaged goods or sent back to jobs that injured them further. Dixon said she had doctor’s orders not to pull or lift heavy objects and to alternate sitting and standing, but she wasn’t given a chair and heavy boxes kept coming her way.

The company does instruct workers on the safe way to move their bodies and handle equipment. But several former workers said they had to break the safety rules to keep up. They would jump or stretch to reach a top rack instead of using a stepladder. They would twist and bend over to grab boxes instead of taking time to squat and lift with their legs. They would hoist extra-heavy items alone to avoid wasting time getting help. They had to, they said, or they would lose their jobs. So they took the risk.

Then, if they got hurt, they would lose their jobs anyway. Even some workers who loved the pace, camaraderie and compensation at Amazon’s fulfillment centers told Reveal that they were quickly replaced as soon as their bodies broke down.

And when disaster struck at one Indiana warehouse, Amazon’s economic might may have helped the company evade accountability. When a maintenance worker was crushed to death by a forklift there, state officials in Indiana, which then was jockeying for Amazon’s second headquarters, sided with the company over their own investigator.

The root of Amazon’s success appears to be at the root of its injury problem, too: the blistering pace of delivering packages to its customers.

Amazon’s busiest season, which the company calls “peak,” begins with the runup to Black Friday. Amazon said it shipped Prime members more than a billion items last holiday season. This year, Amazon has a new promise: free one-day delivery for Prime members.

[Amazon’s busy season] is also crunch time for the human body. Employees face the exhaustion of mandatory 12-hour shifts, and warehouses are crammed with seasonal workers unaccustomed to the grind. The company’s 2018 logs show weekly injury counts spiked at two distinct moments when Amazon offers special deals: Cyber Monday and Prime Day.

It’s also crunch time for the human body. Employees face the exhaustion of mandatory 12-hour shifts, and warehouses are crammed with seasonal workers unaccustomed to the grind. The company’s 2018 logs show weekly injury counts spiked at two distinct moments when Amazon offers special deals: Cyber Monday and Prime Day.

Robinson, the Amazon spokesperson, said total injuries do go up during those peak times, but that’s only because the company brings on more workers then. Robinson said the rate of injuries historically has stayed steady, or even decreased, at peak times. Amazon declined to provide data to back up that claim.

The Amazon tenure of Parker Knight, a disabled veteran who worked at the Troutdale, Oregon, warehouse this year, shows the ruthless precision of Amazon’s system. Knight had been allowed to work shorter shifts after he sustained back and ankle injuries at the warehouse, but ADAPT didn’t spare him. Knight was written up three times in May for missing his quota.

The expectations were precise. He had to pick 385 small items or 350 medium items each hour. One week, he was hitting 98.45% of his expected rate, but that wasn’t good enough. That 1.55% speed shortfall earned him his final written warning – the last one before termination.

The company’s aggressive production demands have overwhelmed its safety teams’ efforts to protect workers, according to five former Amazon safety managers, who oversaw safety at fulfillment centers around the country and spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation.

But injury records and interviews with three of the former Amazon safety managers suggest the introduction of the robots led to even more injuries. Of the records Reveal obtained, most of the warehouses with the highest rates of injury deployed robots. One robotic facility in Kent, Washington – which a senior operations manager boasted was “the flagship of fulfillment,” as one of the few centers in 2016 to ship a million packages in a day – logged 292 serious injuries last year, for a rate of about 13 serious injuries per 100 workers.

After Amazon debuted the robots in Tracy, California, five years ago, the serious injury rate there nearly quadrupled, going from 2.9 per 100 workers in 2015 to 11.3 in 2018, records show.

Jonathan Meador watched the transition from his position loading boxes into big rig trailers. The robots at the Tracy warehouse were so efficient that humans could barely keep up. Suddenly, the pickers and packers were expected to move more products every minute, and more boxes shot down the conveyor belt toward Meador.

The Oregon facility where Knight worked opened with robotics in August 2018 and had the highest serious injury rate Reveal found: nearly 26 per 100 employees, more than six times the industry average.

New warehouses sometimes are rushed to open before they’re ready, said two of the former safety managers, leading management to skimp on training and start operations without full safety teams in place.

Injury records are supposed to be one way of holding companies accountable for their safety culture. The U.S. Department of Labor under the Obama administration proposed posting them online, but under President Donald Trump, the agency has reversed course and also has fought public records requests. And Amazon has resisted making its own safety records public.

Reveal filed multiple requests to OSHA for injury records from Amazon facilities in more than a dozen states, many of which were released with critical information redacted; Reveal has filed suit to challenge those redactions.

Still, by law, employers must provide complete injury records to any current or former employee who requests them. Reveal reached out to Amazon warehouse workers past and present and explained how to request records for their worksite, ultimately receiving 2018 records for 23 fulfillment centers in 14 states. Two of the injury logs came from a collaboration of worker advocacy groups, including New York Communities for Change and Make the Road New York.

In at least a dozen cases, Amazon either ignored these employee requests or provided only partial records, in apparent violation of federal regulations. Amazon told some workers that they were entitled only to the records for the time period they worked there; OSHA spokesperson Kimberly Darby said that’s incorrect. And when Amazon did provide records, warehouse managers used identical language to call them confidential and request they be kept secret. Yet OSHA guidance says, and Darby confirmed, that employers are not allowed to restrict workers from sharing the records. Some workers said they felt intimidated by the notice, fearing they might get sued by Amazon for sharing the records with a news organization.

Several years ago, according to three of the former safety managers, Amazon had a policy for systematically hiding injuries. A former safety specialist in a warehouse confirmed their account. He said higher-ups instructed him to come up with justifications for not recording injuries that should have been counted by law.

After OSHA cited Amazon for failing to record dozens of injuries at a New Jersey warehouse in 2015, Amazon changed the practice, and the former safety managers said the company became more diligent about counting injuries. (OSHA requires companies to record work-related injuries on official logs only when they result in days away from work, job restrictions or medical treatment beyond first aid.)

Robinson said that Amazon never had a policy for underreporting injuries but that in 2016, it implemented a policy change after recognizing the challenge of ensuring “consistency and accuracy.”

“Amazon took the decision to shift to a fully transparent reporting model as we would rather over-report and lead in this space for our associates’ safety than optimize for optics,” she said.

The former senior safety manager said some warehouse managers still found ways to avoid directing workers to the on-site health clinic – such as sending them to the break room instead – so their injuries wouldn’t get recorded. A few workers said supervisors would get upset if they reported injuries or sought medical treatment.

The logs Reveal obtained are scattered with lacerations and concussions and fractures, but most of the injuries are labeled as sprains and strains. The pain from these injuries can be debilitating. About a third of the injured workers had to take off more than a onth to recover.

Candice Dixon remembers her excitement when the Amazon warehouse opened in Eastvale in March 2018. The new fulfillment center would help make Amazon the Inland Empire’s largest private employer, offering a decent wage and health benefits – with no experience necessary. That fall, Amazon executive Dave Clark chose the Eastvale warehouse to make the announcement that Amazon’s new minimum wage would be $15 per hour. The hundreds of workers crowded around him broke into cheers and applause.

But the jobs, Dixon soon found, came with a brutal work pace. She and other Eastvale workers said nothing was allowed to stand in the way of Amazon’s delivery targets.

On New Year’s Day 2019, the smell of gas wafted through the giant warehouse and workers started to fall ill.

A call came in to the local 911 dispatcher just after midnight Jan. 2, five and a half hours into the night shift.

“There’s a lot of people sick,” an Amazon worker said.

The person on the line, Christina Van Vorce, a robotics floor monitor, had been smelling gas since the start of her shift. Some workers had been moved to another part of the building, and others were sent briefly to a break room, but the warehouse had not been evacuated, according to accounts by Van Vorce and four others at work that night. After seeing pickers throwing up into trash cans, Van Vorce clocked out to dial 911. She told the dispatcher she didn’t want Amazon to know she had called.

“Where I was at on my floor, pretty much everyone on that side felt sick,” she can be heard saying in the recording. “Two associates that I know for sure that were vomiting. One girl almost completely passed out. She had to be taken by a wheelchair. And then everyone else has got, like, headaches and the burning in the chest and the nose.”

The dispatcher said everyone should evacuate the building. Robinson told Reveal that Amazon shut down the site for about an hour and a half while a maintenance team repaired the leak. But Van Vorce tells the dispatcher that management wouldn’t stop operations.

“They’re trying to tell us we have to use our personal time if we want to leave,” she says in the 911 recording.

Another worker called 911 with a similar report, saying she and her co-workers smelled gas and she had clocked out with a headache, but management wouldn’t evacuate. The fire department arrived and found that wind had damaged a gas line, funneling gas into the building.

One current Eastvale worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation, said a friend drove her to a hospital in Upland, where she spent several hours on oxygen, an account the friend confirmed. The friend said she herself ended up out of work for weeks with dizziness and headaches. Amazon’s injury logs did record one worker’s “respiratory irritation” that day.

Robinson said that before firefighters arrived, gas was shut off to the building and its safety team “assessed we had fresh air entering the building and there was no risk” to workers. She insisted that no one was hospitalized.

Van Vorce and other workers said Amazon docked their personal time off for leaving work during the [gas] leak, though Robinson told Reveal that was against company policy…. “It was all about numbers,” Van Vorce said in an interview. “They didn’t want to stop production.”

Van Vorce and other workers said Amazon docked their personal time off for leaving work during the leak, though Robinson told Reveal that was against company policy. She confirmed that anyone docked time off got it reversed if they complained.

“It was all about numbers,” Van Vorce said in an interview. “They didn’t want to stop production.”

If Amazon’s Eastvale leadership wouldn’t pause production for a gas leak, they certainly didn’t pause for something as mundane as a trip to the bathroom.

Bathroom visits are tracked carefully at Amazon fulfillment centers, according to multiple current and former workers and managers, with each gap in scanning labeled as “time off task.” Too much time off task can trigger a write-up, and workers describe being caught between wanting to stay hydrated and trying to avoid long treks across a giant warehouse to the bathroom.

Robinson said Amazon ensures every worker has access to a restroom a “short walk” away “whenever needed.” But she did not address whether workers are docked for such trips as time off task. It was that threat that sparked some workers to devise workarounds.

Adam Kester, who worked as a picker at a fulfillment center in Phoenix until last year, said he and other workers would bring customers’ orders into the bathroom with them to scan midway through. “It sounds disgusting,” he acknowledged.

Kristi Shrum, who worked as a stower until 2018 at another Amazon warehouse in Southern California, said she sometimes would have friends scan items for her while she went to the bathroom to make it look as though she was working. Still, she said she got multiple urinary tract infections.

“You have to hold your pee or not make your rate. Which one you want to do?” Shrum said. “I had to make my rate.”

Faith Gerdon of Anaheim said she developed urinary tract infections while working as a stower at the Eastvale warehouse last year. At one point, she got so upset that she told her supervisor, “I’m happy to bring puppy pads and pee here on the floor.”

As Eastvale – a member of last year’s Million Unit Club – again gears up for the frantic holiday season, Gerdon won’t have a chance to earn all that overtime.

Last December, injuries to both of her thumbs and wrists put her off work, according to Amazon’s logs. She hasn’t worked since.

“We are ramping up to make our 25th holiday season the best ever for Prime customers – with millions of products available for free one-day delivery,” Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO,  said in an Oct. 24 press release about Amazon’s most recent earnings report. “Customers love the transition of Prime from two days to one day – they’ve already ordered billions of items with free one-day delivery this year.”




Categories: Issues, labor and unions, Local, National

Tags: , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: