Tthe ornado penetrated six states on Friday, killing dozens. Among those killed were six workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Edwardsville, IL, which collapsed as they took refuge inside. The incident is now under investigation by OSHA.
The incident with the mass casualties is probably “the deadliest tornado system in the history of the state” in Kentucky, according to ABC. The Twisters also landed in December, far beyond the usual tornado season. While this may have been an unusually extreme weather event for many reasons, Amazon’s decision to deploy its workers during potentially deadly conditions was not. Reportedly, at the time the cyclone landed in the warehouse parking lot – creating winds estimated at 155 miles per hour – the plant was not only in operation, but was also undergoing a shift change.
Amazon has a staggering number of delivery, sorting and delivery centers across the country, and as a result, some of them will surely surprise the forces of nature. Excessive snow on the roof of a warehouse in Pennsylvania resulted in an evacuation when workers noticed it was bending. Two performers were killed because of the wall that collapsed when the tornado landed without warning in Baltimore.
But the National Weather Service was warning possible tornadoes 36 hours before his death in Edwardsville; the morning before the storm warned about the “probable threat” of “harmful winds exceeding 60 mph.” Edwardsville is in what FEMA categorizes as Wind Zone IV, the part of the country most at risk of tornadoes.
Amazon is perhaps better known in media coverage for its punitive productivity goals. But its operating standards have produced a pattern of incidents in which workers were expected to arrive during extreme weather events. The warehouses remained open during the tropical Ida Depression in September, whose heavy rains caused major flooding and led to 14 deaths in New York City. Some of Amazon’s drivers told me that they have been delivering packages through the flood waters of Hurricane Irma since 2017.
The 2018 campfire was the deadliest and most expensive fire in California history. The smoke from the devastation briefly made Sacramento the most polluted city in the world. Despite air quality warnings issued for the city on November 8, Amazon’s warehouse did not send its workers home until the afternoon of November 10.
However, by far the most common problem in Amazon’s warehouses was extreme heat. Workers in the Northwest Pacific were expected to report for duty during the historic heat wave last summer, which was eventually declared a mass casualty. In particular, one worker complained that some parts of the warehouse in Kent lack fans, and the estimated temperature inside is 90 degrees. Warehouse workers in New York City also reported fainting and excessive heat at about the same time. In May of this year, excessive heat led to death at the Bessemer warehouse in Alabama.
These are just some of the latest examples. Workers have complained for at least a decade about dangerous temperatures at Amazon’s Chicago, Portland and Lehigh Valley facilities in Pennsylvania, among others. Even when immediate symptoms such as fainting, vomiting, or heat stroke are not present, prolonged exposure to heat can exacerbate existing health problems such as heart disease and asthma.
None of this speaks to criticisms of Amazon’s security measures regarding COVID-19, or its objectively high injury rates relative to other storage operations.
What is worrying is that, according to the vast majority of the scientific community, strong winds, rain and heat are likely to be even worse due to man-made climate change. Amazon, however, has not offered a satisfactory explanation as to why it continues to schedule shifts during potentially deadly weather, nor will it give Engadget any details of the extreme timetable in force at the Edwardsville facility.
“We are deeply saddened by the news that members of our Amazon family have died as a result of the storm in Edwardsville, IL,” an Amazon spokesman told Engadget. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their loved ones and all affected by the tornado. We also want to thank all those who were the first to respond to their ongoing efforts on the ground. We continue to support our employees and partners in this area.”
If you’re an Amazon employee or contractor and want to confidentially discuss workplace issues, you can contact me at Signal at 646.983.9846
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