Amazon is breaking the law by putting warehouse workers at risk for back and joint injuries, federal regulators say in new citations

Amazon is breaking the law by putting warehouse workers at risk for back and joint injuries, federal regulators say in new citations
Workers at an Amazon Fulfillment Center in Tracy, California, November 29, 2015.Reuters/Fred Greaves
  • Federal safety regulators fined Amazon $60,269 for putting workers at risk for back, joint injuries.
  • Injuries linked to the "high frequency" of "repetitive tasks" at Amazon warehouses, regulators said.

In several citations, federal regulators blamed Amazon warehouse conditions for high rates of back and joint injuries among workers in these facilities.

Such injuries, regulators said, can be "serious" and persist beyond employment at Amazon.

The citations, which include a penalty of $60,269, are the latest in a series of regulatory actions focusing on injury rates at Amazon. Regulators in Washington state have issued similar citations related to Amazon's high rate of back, muscle and joint injuries, called musculoskeletal disorders.

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In December, federal regulators cited Amazon for not recording worker injuries properly. Wednesday's citations are for creating conditions that injure workers.

An Insider investigation last year found that Amazon's pace of work wildly increases the risk of debilitating muscle and joint injuries for its more than 750,000 US warehouse workers. Workers at Amazon warehouses are four times as likely to suffer such injuries as workers in non-Amazon warehouses, a review of Washington state workers' compensation data showed.


Federal safety inspectors with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited three Amazon warehouses, in Florida, Illinois and New York. Similar inspections are ongoing in Colorado, Idaho and at another warehouse in New York, according to the Department of Labor.

"Each of these inspections found work processes that were designed for speed but not safety, and they resulted in serious worker injuries," OSHA assistant secretary Doug Parker said.

'Employees tell us they feel our workplace is safe'

In an email, an Amazon spokesperson said the company disagrees with the government's allegations, and that it plans to appeal the citations.

"The vast majority of our employees tell us they feel our workplace is safe," the spokesperson said. "We look forward to sharing more during our appeal about the numerous safety innovations, process improvements, and investments we're making to further reduce injuries. We know there will always be ways for us to improve even further, and we will—we'll never stop working to be safer for our employees."

The company has previously called reporting on its high injury rates "extremely selective" and said that it takes health and safety seriously in its warehouses. Last year, Amazon donated $12 million to the National Safety Council to "invent new ways to prevent" musculoskeletal disorders. The company has rolled out workplace-safety initiatives at its warehouses, including a job-rotation program, daily stretches, and training on how to properly lift and grip.


Obstructing workers' efforts

But Amazon may not have a thorough understanding of just how hurt its workers are, regulators said, because the company's on-site first aid clinics are understaffed, inadequately trained, and often fail to record injuries in accordance with federal law, according to the inspections in Florida and New York.

Regulators found evidence in Florida that Amazon was actively obstructing workers' efforts to seek medical care and access workers' compensation payments. For instance, Amazon forced injured workers to seek care in its on-site clinic for three weeks before giving them a referral to a physician.

"The injured workers are then sometimes left both with chronic pain and with functional impairment," regulators wrote in a hazard alert letter, a document warning employers to immediately begin ameliorating safety risks. "Multiple interviewees described ongoing physical limitations."

Regulators in Florida interviewed "several workers" who had been fired while they were injured, the letter said.

Poor record-keeping

And some injured workers who needed to take time off work to recover were told to request short-term disability benefits rather than workers' compensation benefits, according to the regulators. That could benefit Amazon by creating the false impression that injury rates were lower than they actually are, since workers on short-term disability may not be not counted towards the injury rate.


Amazon's injury record-keeping is so poor, regulators concluded, that it is difficult to determine how injuries are caused. That would make it nearly impossible to mitigate injury hazards at a warehouse. The first aid supervisor at Amazon's Deltona, Florida, facility "was an athletic trainer by training," not a physician, according to regulators. In several instances, regulators found that Amazon medical personnel with lapsed licenses were treating workers.

A rash of other hazards

Regulators also identified a rash of other hazards at the three warehouses inspected.

The Florida warehouse had such a high interior temperature that workers were at risk of diseases like heat stroke, according to one hazard letter. In a warehouse in Waukegan, Illinois, handling large, heavy, and bulky packages, workers had repeatedly been hit or bruised by falling merchandise that weighed more than 50 lbs, according to regulators' review of injury logs.

If the citations stand after appeal, Amazon would only be strictly required to abate the hazards at the warehouses listed in the citations. In a news conference Wednesday morning, though, OSHA's Parker said he hoped the citations would have a wider impact.

"We would certainly hope that if we're pointing out a hazard at an Amazon facility at one place, they would, in keeping with their obligation to protect workers, they would look into the feasibility of abating the hazards at other facilities," Parker said, "rather than us play a cat and mouse game of chasing them up and down the country."


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