Amazon warehouse workers suffer muscle and joint injuries at a rate 4 times higher than industry peers
- Musculoskeletal disorders like strains, sprains, and carpal tunnel are Amazon's most common injuries.
- Amazon workers are four times as likely to get musculoskeletal disorders as workers in non-Amazon warehouses.
Data compiled by Washington state's workplace safety regulator reveals a more nuanced understanding than has previously been reported of the types of injuries making up Amazon's workplace safety crisis.
Nationwide, Amazon workers are twice as likely as other warehouse employees to incur a serious injury on the job, federal workplace safety data shows.
Washington state's data, though, shows that the bulk of the injury disparity between Amazon and other warehouse employers is the result of a concentration of musculoskeletal disorders at Amazon warehouses. Musculoskeletal disorders — like carpal tunnel, back pain, and hernias — are the result of accumulated damage to muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, cartilage, and spinal discs caused by repetitive movement and physical exertion over time.
Between 2015 and 2019, Amazon warehouse workers in Washington state were on average 3.85 times as likely to incur a musculoskeletal injury compared to their peers in the state's warehouse sector, the state's analysis showed. In that same period, Amazon workers were only 1.2 times as likely as workers in non-Amazon warehouses to get a non-musculoskeletal injury — for instance, an injury caused by a forklift collision or fall from a ladder.
Behind the high rate of musculoskeletal injuries at Amazon's warehouses is the company's "very high pace of work," Washington state's Department of Labor and Industries found in four separate Amazon workplace safety citations this year.
"To meet the promise of two-day delivery, the high pace of work is pretty consistent throughout the facility," ergonomist Richard Goggins, who has inspected multiple Amazon warehouses for the state safety regulator, told Insider. Amazon workers are compelled to move so quickly, Goggins said, that when inspectors tried to measure workers' risk of musculoskeletal injuries at Amazon's flagship warehouse in Kent, south of Seattle, "it broke the model."
In response to what inspectors found in Kent, regulators this month issued the most severe workplace safety violation in Amazon's history. The violation was classified as "willful," signaling that regulators believe Amazon is operating with "intentional disregard or plain indifference" for employee safety or federal law. Amazon did not respond to a request for comment for this article, but the company has said it disagrees with inspectors' findings and will appeal the citation.
Musculoskeletal injuries are insidious, Goggins said. They're slow to develop and slow to heal. Unlike a fall or an amputation, there isn't a single incident that results in musculoskeletal injury, meaning some workers may be slow to recognize that they're hurt, he said.
"You not only have to heal up to get on with your life, but you have to get up to where the exposure doesn't cause reinjury," Goggins said. "These injuries can take people off work for a really long time." On average, Amazon workers who develop a musculoskeletal injury are off work for 103 days to recover, the state's analysis found.
Last year, Amazon said it planned to reduce workplace injuries by 50% by 2025. The company's plan to tackle injuries includes stretching before shifts, mandatory ergonomic training, and algorithms that rotate workers between roles to reduce fatigue. Amazon spent $300 million last year on safety initiatives, the company has said, and it has established a five-year, $12 million partnership with the nonprofit National Safety Council to research new ways of preventing musculoskeletal disorders, which the company calls MSDs.
"We are committed to leading the way to proactively manage—and prevent—work-related MSDs by drawing on our expertise in innovation and technology and by collaborating with proven thought leaders and scientists," Amazon said in a safety report released earlier this year. The company has a special focus on reducing the incidence of musculoskeletal disorders among new warehouse employees: 55% of musculoskeletal disorders at Amazon's warehouses are among workers who have been at the company for fewer than six months, the report said.
Amazon, though, has said it does not plan to reduce its pace of work.
"Safety and performance targets can go hand in hand," Amazon's vice president of workplace safety, Heather MacDougall, said last year.
Regulators say that Amazon won't meaningfully address its musculoskeletal injuries until the company lets workers move more slowly.
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