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Amazon Warehouse Collapse Highlights Importance of Emergency Preparedness

Amazon claims to want to be the Earth’s safest place to work. Yet, not only do they thwart employee efforts to unionize and have injury rates twice as high as the industry average, but recent events show they also have serious deficiencies when it comes to emergency preparedness. This past December, six Amazon employees were killed at work when a tornado struck a warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois. The tragic incident has spurred questions about Amazon’s health and safety policies and left employees, company shareholders and the victims’ families with concerns about how the online giant treats its workforce.

Residents of Edwardsville received multiple tornado watch alerts earlier that day, but Amazon workers had to show up to work regardless. According to an Amazon spokesperson, the site received tornado warnings between 8:06 and 8:16 and the tornado struck at 8:27. Workers were instructed to take shelter in the designated “safe zone” (an interior bathroom not designed to handle extreme weather) with just 11 minutes to cross the one-million-square-foot warehouse. Most employees made it to the designated area and survived, but seven sought shelter in another bathroom on the other side of the building that did not hold up to the storm. All but one of those seven died in the collapse.

Why Did This Happen?

Natural disasters can strike at any moment with little warning and leave behind immense devastation. Still, it is an employer’s responsibility to be prepared for these events and have adequate policies and procedures in place in case of emergency. Workers at Edwardsville claim to have never received this vital emergency training.

“We’ve never had any tornado drills, nor had we sheltered in place for any of the warnings we’ve had in the past,” a former Illinois Amazon facility worker told NBC. She added that there were two other instances where she was expected to continue working during an active tornado warning, despite the site’s alarms. Another employee echoed that in his six years with the company, he had never received emergency training and hadn’t practiced a fire drill in over two years.

It’s also worth noting that the four-year-old warehouse was built without any reinforced, dedicated storm shelter areas. Illinois, like the rest of the Midwest, experiences tornadoes relatively often. Current state building codes do not require warehouses to be built with designated storm shelters (although the Illinois governor is reconsidering this following recent events). But this incident begs the question: why does the trillion-dollar e-commerce giant that aims to be the safest workplace in the world choose not to build a storm shelter in an area prone to natural disasters?

According to the National Storm Shelter Association, adding a storm shelter to a new warehouse building adds, at most, two percent to the overall building cost. Costs can vary, but typically range from $20,000 up to $300,000 in larger buildings like warehouses. Storm shelters can be put anywhere – meeting rooms, restrooms or even corridors – making them an option even when basement shelters aren’t possible due to flood concerns.

People vs. Profit

Emergency procedure training and proper shelter areas are both crucial to staying safe during a crisis like a tornado, but should workers have even been at work during a tornado watch in the first place? Several Amazon employees claim their supervisors threatened to fire them if they didn’t show up to work during the tornado warnings and required them to work up until the moment the deadly storm struck. Many Amazon sites also implement a phone ban to maximize productivity. This means that in an emergency, workers may not see local warnings come through and may not be able to communicate with loved ones on time if disaster does strike.

All of these mistakes underscore one primary problem: Amazon continues to prioritize profits over worker safety. The tragedy took place in December, as the company was working to fill an influx of orders for the holiday season. Amazon could have evacuated the entire facility earlier that day amid several tornado warnings. Instead, six people lost their lives at work due to a prioritization of productivity. With their unrealistic production targets, high surveillance on the job, abnormally high worker turnover rates and lack of proper health and safety protocols, it’s clear that Amazon sees worker safety as secondary to pushing packages.

What Happens Now?

OSHA will conduct a six-month investigation of the warehouse collapse and may issue citations based on their findings. In the meantime, the company is facing lawsuits from the victims’ families for wrongful death and Amazon stakeholders are urging the online store to audit its health and safety policies.

“As Amazon strives to be the Earth’s safest place to work, a review is needed of the practices that have made the company a leader in workplace injuries and a target for criticism and regulation,” said a representative from Domini Impact Investments, an Amazon shareholder. “With surveillance and productivity quotas linked to high injury rates, we urge Amazon to commission an independent audit of these practices.”

As the world continues to see more severe weather events due to climate change, it is imperative that industry giants like Amazon reconsider their approach to building standards, emergency protocols and overall treatment of their workforce. The enormous online merchant continues to be an example of why we need unions. For generations, unions have forced companies to take safety seriously and deliver adequate protections on site. There’s no reason for workers to die for the sake of profit.

[Hannah Sabitoni]

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