This article has been written by Abhishek Aditya, pursuing the Diploma in Labour, Employment and Industrial Laws (including POSH) for HR Managers from LawSikho.
Nearly two years ago, news surfaced of Amazon warehouse workers having to urinate in plastic bottles because they cannot go to the toilet during their shift. The headline, expectedly, sent shock waves. Two years later, not much seems to have changed. In April of this year, the company was forced to apologize after it initially pooh-poohed similar allegations, this time about truck drivers. Worse still, it appears Amazon has been aware of such incidents but has refused to acknowledge them or to take corrective measures.
For a global behemoth that has been cited as the ‘Most Valuable Global Brand’, criticism of its workplace health and safety performance is neither new nor infrequent. The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH), a leading not-for-profit organization in the US has listed Amazon among the twelve most dangerous companies to work at. The rate of serious injuries at Amazon warehouses is almost double the national average for the warehousing industry.
A warehouse, like any workplace deploying large industrial equipment, is inherently hazardous. Heavy machinery such as forklifts or loaders, large-sized installations such as storage racks and moving objects such as robots or conveyors almost always have affiliated risks. Warehouses also involve climbing ladders or stairs and working at heights. The risk of accidents and injuries, such as ‘being hit by a moving machine’ or ‘fall from height’ etc. are always higher in all factory settings. Yet one would have expected one of the world’s largest and most profitable businesses to have fared better on health and safety parameters. What then makes Amazon warehouses, an especially dangerous place to work?
Common injuries at warehouses
As stated before, industrial equipment and machinery present risks of accidents and bodily harm and these are a major cause of injuries occurring at warehouses. Other significant contributors are ‘Musculo-Skeletal Disorders (MSDs)’ arising out of work. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, acknowledged as much when he highlighted the issue in his annual letter to shareholders. Exactly what are these ‘Musculo-Skeletal Disorders (MSDs)?
Let us take one example of work at a warehouse – to stow items in tall racks. The worker is brought a box of goods by a robot. He is required to pick each item out of the box, scan it and place it on the racks, and scan its new location in that rack. Once a rack is filled, a robot takes it away and brings another one to the worker. A worker may need to go through a number of body movements during this work:-
Picking each item out of the box – If the box is placed at ground height, the worker will have to bend each time to pick an item. For heavier items, he will have to squat to pick it up. For the higher shelves on the rack, he would use a stepladder. If the warehouse does not have a robot, the worker will walk to the individual racks.
Repetitive body movements, such as bending, lifting, squatting, etc. can lead to debilitating injuries, especially if correct techniques are not used. Warehouses are huge facilities – those of Amazon are typical of the size of fifteen football fields. Workers may end up walking a distance of nearly 12 miles over one shift. If sufficient intervals of rest and breaks with stretching exercises are not incorporated, proper recovery of muscles does not take place. These can eventually lead to long-term Musculo-Skeletal disorders.
How can warehouse accidents and injuries and MSDs be minimized?
Proper, scientifically designed safety protocols for warehouse operations are required to be drawn and adhered to. Standard procedures are needed for the operation and maintenance of machines. The protocols and procedures have to be learned by all workers at the warehouse. Thus training and instruction are critical to ensuring adherence. To this end, safety teams need to be deployed to continuously monitor and correct all instances of unsafe work behavior.
To reduce injuries originating from repetitive movements, it is essential to use correct body movement techniques. Each work post has to be analyzed scientifically for each body movement involved. Each body movement has to be ergonomically sound so as to eliminate the likelihood of injuries. Each worker has to be duly trained and monitored for adopting correct techniques. Proper intervals of rest and stretching routines have to be incorporated into work schedules. Repetitive movements of the same set of muscles can be avoided by rotating workers throughout the day on different workstations.
Warehouses need to employ professional safety engineers as well as athletic trainers in addition to investing in carefully designed training programs.
Why does Amazon fare so badly?
- Production is ‘prime’, Safety is primal
Amazon’s official tagline is – ‘Work Hard. Have Fun. Make History.’ Many critics have cited the company’s relentless focus on ever-increasing production and profits as one of the major underlying reasons for its poor performance on workers’ safety and health. This focus has manifested itself in a number of ways. Amazon demands high standards of performance from its workers. In our previous example of picking goods from boxes, scanning and placing them on racks, workers have reported that they are required to scan an item every 11 seconds – a staggering 300 items every hour. Workers at Amazon get two 15-minute breaks and one 30-minute lunch break over a 10-hour shift. They have to remain standing at all times other than breaks, as there are no chairs at workstations. However, even breaks are not fully available to the workers, as the break-time includes the time taken to walk to the break-room from the work-station. In a large warehouse, this takes a significant amount of time. Workers often choose to stay at workstations during the break periods too.
Some workers avoid going to the bathrooms during a shift as the visit to the bathroom is recorded under ‘nonproductive time’. Even if workers aren’t feeling well, they avoid drinking extra water as nonproductive time is not condoned on any account. Workers are continuously monitored through wearable devices for the time spent on non-productive work. Anything less than 100% of targeted ‘productive’ time is deemed not enough – and leads to eventual dismissal. Safety protocols are either not diligently designed or not scrupulously followed. Former workers have reported repeated violations of even basic safety protocols – such as mandated ‘group work’ being done by one person or by fewer persons than stipulated, overstuffed bins which may lead to falling objects, workers moving into the path of moving machines, not enough clearance being left between machines by their operators, etc. Such violations should be routinely monitored, recorded, and corrected by safety watchers. However, safety teams themselves feel undermined, as safety is often given a short-shrift when production targets are held paramount. In such cases, safety procedures such as safety training or safety talks are often seen as an impediment – as adding to non-productive time. Safe working methods such as mandated group work is seen as driving down productivity.
In fact, major sales events, such as Prime-day sales, which Amazon is well-known for, dramatically increase the workload for the workers. On such occasions, Amazon hires temporary workers to meet the increased workload. Workers are required to work mandatory 12-hour shifts. Workers are not allowed paid leave during those periods. It has also been reported that the rate of injuries go up during such periods. While robots might have dramatically boosted Amazon’s production speed, they have not reduced injuries. In fact, the average injury rate at warehouses deploying robots is higher. Trying to catch up with robots’ speed is leading to more injuries. Any amount of ‘correct’ body movement and stretching, will not preclude a basic fact – that the human body, its muscles, and tissues can only take so much stress and pain. Their ability to withstand strain is not infinite.
It is not a robot, and it cannot be bench-marked for speeds against robots. Beyond a particular speed, people will be forced to bypass safe working methods, especially if not catching up to that speed can mean being fired from the job. In some instances, workers have suffered permanent damages to their bodies. This is also due to improper rest and insufficient recoveries after sustaining an injury, which further aggravates the condition. Workers have returned to full duties, against doctors’ advice, even after major injuries or surgeries. Despite the doctor’s advice, they are not allowed light duty. Performance lags due to injuries are not excused in the world of Amazon’s high standards. Amazon’s obsession with production sometimes threatens the lives of its workers. On one occasion, after a gas leakage at one of the warehouses, the supervisors neither stopped operations nor carried out an evacuation, despite a number of people falling visibly sick.
- A culture of ‘secrecy’
Amazon has not come clean on these injuries and accidents. In violation of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules, the company has often declined workers’ requests for complete injury records or has provided incomplete information. Former safety managers have indicated that Amazon previously had a policy of hiding injuries, although that has now changed. However, supervisors at warehouses still find ingenious ways to avoid reporting injuries or reporting major injuries as minor sprains and strains. Many wounds or injuries are not reported by attributing them to pre-existing conditions instead of workplace accidents. Many injuries also go unreported as OSHA regulations require logging of injuries if they result in absence from work, or medical treatment beyond first-aid. Many lacerations and concussions are reported as strains and sprains.
A safety inspector with Indiana OSHA blew the lid on an alleged scandal involving Amazon as well as the local government. The inspector had flagged violations of basic safety procedures after a workplace accident killed a worker. He found that the workers were inadequately trained in dealing with the equipment and that safety procedures were being bypassed to ensure that production targets did not suffer. However, these red flags raised by the inspector were later watered-down and the company was cleared of all allegations of safety violations. The inspector has alleged that this was because the local government was vying for an Amazon warehouse to be opened in that area.
- Violation of regulations
Amazon instructs its employees to inform their in-house security or medical personnel and not to call 911 emergency services. The care that this in-house personnel can provide does not equal 911’s competence in handling emergencies. In one instance, it is alleged that the time spent by the in-house medical team called ‘Amcare’, had delayed the critical life-saving intervention that 911 could have provided. The delay was too costly. In the same case, it is also alleged that the worker had a history of heart-related ailments. It does not appear that Amazon had taken any steps to monitor the worker’s health, much less tailor his work to his health situation. The temporary staffing agency had not done a medical check-up before the worker was hired. Amcare has been criticized by OSHA for delaying sending workers to doctors, which further worsens their injuries.
Amcare professionals sometimes provide care beyond their licensing. They often choose or are unable to detect serious injuries and send workers back to their workstations. One facility in New Jersey was fined for failing to report injuries.
- Fewer benefits but more injuries for temporary workers
Just like the contract labor system in India, Amazon too employs workers directly and through staffing service providers. This is managed through staffing agencies and is especially used during peak demand seasons. For Amazon, this means reduced costs for what is practically the same kind of work. Staffing agencies typically provide fewer benefits, including health insurance plans that offer not just less coverage but also take away a sizable portion of the wages of workers. Temporary workers have been found to be at a greater risk of injury than full-time workers, due to lack of training. Apart from unsafe working conditions, mistreatment and discrimination, temporary workers have also complained about wage thefts. However, Amazon has escaped censure from such charges, as the liability rests mainly on the staffing agency. The death of a temporary worker at a warehouse resulted in fines by OSHA, but those fines were charged to the staffing agency, not Amazon. Performance standards for temporary workers are even higher, thereby resulting in more injuries.
Customer-centric at the cost of workers
Amazon’s customers around the world eagerly await ‘Prime’ days – in large part due to deep discounts offered on those days. While sales for Amazon increase on ‘prime’ days, so do the injuries for its workers.
Workers cannot go to a private physician if the state laws stipulate that the insurance agency has to set up medical care. Workers do not earn enough to pay for their own health expenses without insurance. Inappropriate medical care often results in not just insufficient recovery, it also means that workers return to work earlier thus aggravating their injuries even further. It severely damages the finances of working-class families.
The pace of work at a warehouse and its round-the-clock production also leaves a mental toll on the survivors. The production does not stop to attend to the physical health of its workers. It is therefore too much to ask them to worry about their mental health. A person gone from their midst does leave people shaken, especially when they have their own concerns – about injuries, their constantly-tracked performance, and the ever-present danger of dismissal. In such situations, at least some workers often find themselves in a fragile mental state. However, they have no opportunity to stop or take time off from work.
If the life of an Amazon workhouse worker is tough, the life for his family in case he dies is much tougher. Staffing agencies often do not provide life insurance, in the absence of which, the family has little social security. Workers’ compensation benefits claims too are often unsuccessful if the nature of death is not work-related. The burden of proving that the death is work-related is upon the employee’s family and it is often a hopeless cause.
While the government’s pandering to Amazon might appear reprehensible, as borne out by instances mentioned earlier, its motives are not difficult to understand. Every government needs its people to be ‘at work’. Amazon warehouses are huge establishments – and establishments of that size are typically located away from cities. Such non-urban centers do not have many employment options, so an Amazon warehouse is often the only major employer present. The Amazon warehouse worker will probably be better off elsewhere, even if at $15 an hour, he is paid higher than minimum wages. However, in most cases, he does not have the choice of a better, or for that matter, any other job. Governments are willing to give large concessions, sometimes even ignoring major statutory violations, for having an Amazon warehouse in their area.
Is Amazon finally willing to course-correct?
The company has recently announced a new plan to reduce workplace injuries by 50% by 2025. CEO Jeff Bezos in his annual letter to shareholders has dwelt upon this at length. For a start, it at least indicates that Amazon is mindful of a very serious problem at its warehouses. This new program titled ‘WorkingWell’ purports to provide physical, mental, and nutritional support to employees. Under the program, the workers can watch short instructional videos, to learn the correct methods for body movements.
However, the success of these plans will also depend on whether Amazon is willing to lower its production standards if needed. Whether safety teams will have a say in the rate of production? Whether the supervisors will agree to allow the workers longer breaks if advised. Whether employee feedback is sufficiently incorporated and accommodated. Whether on ‘prime’ days too, the safety of its workers remains the prime concern! For an organization ranked highly on almost all global lists of best corporations, ‘the most dangerous places to work’ is one list it can avoid being in.
- Amazon Warehouse Reports Show Worker Injuries – The Atlantic.
- The Life and Death of an Amazon Warehouse Temp – The Huffington Post.
- The Unseen Plight of Amazon Warehouse Workers – Kairos (rutgers.edu).
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