Amazon Must Address Injury Rates at Its Warehouses

Today, on Black Friday, countless families are already eagerly making their holiday shopping lists. For Amazon’s 370,000 warehouse workers, it’s a season not of joyful anticipation, but of impending doom.

After all, it’s not holiday magic that brings a product from your screen to your mailbox in 24 or 48 hours. It’s those 370,000 workers, who pay a steep price for those speedy deliveries in the form of serious injuries and even disabilities that can be directly traced to the relentless pace at which they are forced to work by the world’s leading retailer. The rate of these injuries has reached crisis levels.

Despite Jeff Bezos’ 2021 pledge to make Amazon the “Earth’s safest place to work,” the Amazon executive and his managers allowed the company’s overall injury rate to jump by 20 percent in the same year. Last year, Amazon warehouse workers suffered nearly as many injuries—38,000—as workers in the rest of America’s warehouses combined, according to the Strategic Organizing Center’s analysis of Amazon’s own internal injury data, collected and released by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

These horrendous results are no accident. They are a predictable outcome of the company’s business model, which prioritizes speed, production, and profit over worker safety. Amazon optimizes its production system to put workers under extreme levels of bodily stress—far beyond any reasonable expectation of safety—while constantly threatening to fire them if they don’t keep up with the inhumane pace of work.

That’s why we testified last week at the House Education and Labor Committee’s hearing on workplace safety in warehouses. We urged Labor Secretary Marty Walsh to continue the administration’s full support for OSHA’s interventions to improve conditions in the warehouse industry. We asked members of the committee to alert the leadership of the nation’s warehousing companies to the dangers of the Amazon business model. And we called on them to demand that Amazon fulfill its legal mandate to protect workers—by complying finally with OSHA’s outstanding orders to remove these widespread hazards.

Amazon knows how to stop these brutal conditions. In 2020, as Amazon’s COVID cases became a full-blown crisis, the company temporarily eased its work speed pressures by suspending disciplinary action based on production metrics. As a result, the company’s injury rate in 2020 dropped significantly.

Amazon warehouse
RUGELEY, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 23: Items move on a conveyer belt before they’re packaged at Rugeley Amazon Fulfilment Centre on November 23, 2022 in Rugeley, England. Black Friday will start on November 25 2022. The day of discounts originated in the United States, has became increasingly popular in the UK with many retailers and e-commerce platform announcing discounts in the weeks leading up to the day.
Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

However, as soon as Prime Day approached in October 2020, Amazon reimplemented its work rate requirement, and sure enough the injury rate in 2021 jumped up again. Amazon’s executives have repeatedly denied the severity of this injury crisis, and tried to blame everyone else—including their own workers. They have severely misrepresented their own injury records to investors, journalists, and the public, claiming that these outrageously high injury rates were “about average” within the relevant industries.

It is no surprise that the Amazon business model is also becoming the norm for the rest of the warehouse industry. But Amazon’s system must be stopped before it destroys the bodies and livelihoods of even more workers—workers like Bobby Gosvenor of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who was rushing to lift bins on a packed conveyor belt after it malfunctioned during the holiday rush. He complained of pain to his supervisor, who told him to just use “some ibuprofen and ice and come back the next day.” Two weeks later, just after Christmas, Gosvener was diagnosed with a herniated disc.

In response to stories like Gosvenor’s and the copious evidence of both rampant injuries at Amazon and management’s failure to address the problem, OSHA offices around the nation are launching investigations. Both Washington state and Federal OSHA have undertaken detailed investigations of these abusive workloads—the most comprehensive national workplace inspections in OSHA’s 52-year history.

One of the warehouses currently under investigation by Federal OSHA is the ALB1 warehouse near Albany, New York, which in 2021 saw the highest injury rate of any primary Amazon warehouse in the nation—20 serious injuries per 100 workers.

And in Washington state, OSHA inspectors found a “direct connection” between Amazon’s monitoring and disciplinary practices and workplace injuries, and that the company’s refusal to take corrective measures, including reducing the “very high pace of work,” is a “willful” violation of OSHA law.

As the next holiday shopping season begins, Amazon must stop denying the dangers, stop opposing OSHA’s interventions, and comply with the orders to fix hazards. Until it does, its warehouse workers will continue to look towards the holidays with a sense of dread, not hope.

Eric Frumin is health and safety director at the Strategic Organizing Center. Sheheryar Kaoosji is executive director of Warehouse Worker Resource Center.

The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.

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