The fatal collapse of an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois during last week’s historic tornado outbreak in the Midwest has raised concerns about the safety of the e-commerce giant’s packing facilities, as well as the policies and procedures in place to protect workers during disasters. Despite being given hours’ notice of impending severe weather, workers were not sent home before a tornado struck the warehouse, killing six people. Although the tornado struck quickly, warehouse managers should not have been caught off guard. The National Weather Service issued an official tornado warning just 22 minutes before the tornado struck, but tornadoes are known for their hurried timetables. More crucially, the National Weather Service had issued a moderate tornado warning the day before the accident, so anyone in charge of a facility should have been aware that they should be on the lookout.
However, there was no legal obligation for the Edwardsville warehouse to respond to the warnings in any way. Most businesses are required to establish Emergency Action Plans, which include evacuation procedures, by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), but US law leaves it up to employers to decide whether to send employees home ahead of a natural catastrophe. In an email to The Verge, an OSHA representative said, “We are not aware of any regulation or obligation of a firm to shut down and send staff home.” Experts in the field of disaster management feel that such a strategy will never be implemented on a national level due to its unpopularity among businesses and the potential for it to reduce revenues. Furthermore, every organisation is unique, and some may have more vital activities or components that, if left unattended, could become dangerous.
“Because it’s the private sector, they’ll never adopt a legislation or a policy to accomplish that.” Laura Myers, senior research scientist and head of the University of Alabama’s Center for Advanced Public Safety, said, “They may do whatever they want. “In short, Amazon had the last say on whether the tornado threat was significant enough to shut down the factory, and the corporation decided to keep the warehouse open.
“The incident has opened many people’s eyes to the idea that we’ve probably had this patchwork quilt for a long time,” says Kimberly Klockow-McClain, a research scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Severe and High-Impact Weather Research and Operations.
Amazon declined to comment on why it decided to keep its facilities open despite the bad weather when asked by The Verge. OSHA is currently looking into what happened the night the tornado ripped through.
“Emergency response training is provided to new workers and that training is maintained throughout the year,” Amazon PR manager Alisa Carroll stated in an email.
She also stated that, as a result of COVID, the corporation revised its cellphone policy in 2020, “allowing our employees to keep their phones with them.” It’s just not true and absolutely false to say that it’s been turned back to pre-COVID.” Phones are essential for getting severe weather alerts, and they can be especially important for workers if their employers fail to act.
“OSHA guidance explicitly recommends to take cover immediately when a tornado warning is issued,” Carroll noted. Our ground leaders followed their instructions and did exactly that, acting rapidly to get people to find cover as soon as possible. Many lives were possibly spared as a result of this storm.”
Nonetheless, the incident fits a worrying pattern of Amazon warehouse workers remaining on the job despite difficult and even deadly working circumstances. During a record-breaking heatwave in the Pacific Northwest in June, some Amazon warehouse workers in Washington state said that many workstations lacked working fans and that temperatures inside the facility were nearing 90 degrees. Workers at Amazon’s JFK8 facility in Staten Island complained in July that the warehouse was excessively hot and that they were being pressured to “work at a nonstop pace. “Workers at the Edwardsville warehouse told The Intercept that they had gotten almost no emergency training and were discouraged from taking time off during natural disasters, which appears to be a company-wide practice. Courtenay Brown, an Amazon Fresh warehouse worker in Avenel, New Jersey, told that her coworkers were likewise given limited training on what to do in the event of an emergency. Brown explained, “They educate you how to perform the job, show you what to do, and then you’re on your own, and that’s it.” Brown recounted a day when the plant experienced a chemical leak. “Only the front of the warehouse was evacuated,” she explained, “until the fire department discovered, ‘Oh wait, there are hundreds of people in the back of the warehouse?'” The employees in the back didn’t understand there was an emergency at first, according to Brown, and when they did, no one knew where to run. “We just started yelling for everyone to exit through the dock doors, and we tried to get everyone out.”
There are structural concerns that can put warehouses in jeopardy as well. According to Matt May, director of the disaster management department for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, warehouses are frequently built employing “tilt-up construction.” Concrete slabs are inclined to make walls, and their connections to the roof keep them upright. Engineers chastised the practice after a tornado ripped through a Home Depot in Joplin, Missouri, in 2011. Since warehouses have replaced offices as the most frequent business structures in the United States, this could become a bigger issue for worker safety in the future.
According to Anne Cope, chief engineer at the nonprofit research organisation Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, building rules haven’t traditionally addressed the high winds associated with tornadoes. However, OSHA’s tornado guideline recommends staying away from “auditoriums, cafeterias, and gymnasiums with flat, wide-span roofs” – structures that look like warehouses.
“[Amazon’s] biggest difficulty is the buildings themselves,” May explains.
The tragedy has already sparked outrage among labour unions, who see it as part of a larger issue with the corporation. The deaths in Edwardsville, according to Eric Frumin, health and safety director for the Strategic Organizing Center (SOC), a coalition of four labour unions that have campaigned for actions against Amazon, can be related to Amazon’s habit of prioritising customers over workers.
“What is the top priority?” “They haven’t been bashful about it: the corporation claims to be obsessed with pleasing customers,” he said in an interview. “And everything else will be damned, even worker safety.”