Amazon responds to accusations about warehouse worker safety, shows COVID-19 changes

KENT, Wash. — Amazon is showing off safety precautions it’s made at its fulfillment centers to protect employees from COVID-19 — saying it’s invested $1 billion in direct safety changes and $4 billion in COVID-19-related initiatives.

These changes come as the company is facing mounting criticism over its treatment of warehouse workers and accusations of increased injuries.

At the Amazon fulfillment center in Kent, packages fly through conveyor belts while warehouse employees or “associates” scan and stock, with screens timing each item.

The company reported it’s made about 150 changes to workflow to keep employees safe from the coronavirus.

Some of the changes include scanners that detect temperature as employees walk by. Walking paths are one way, and plexiglass is everywhere. There are phones set up to talk with someone behind a plexiglass wall so that employees can hear each other over the hum of the warehouse. The company developed new technology that puts a circle around people walking and turns red if they violate social distancing guidelines.

But new reports accuse Amazon of failing to keep its workers safe. A yearlong investigation from Reveal, part of The Center of Investigative Journalism, reported more workers are getting injured.

Reveal obtained Amazon’s internal records that indicated warehouse injuries at Amazon are double the industry average. The report stated the problem is getting worse and that “Amazon’s injury rates have gone up each of the past four years.”

KIRO 7′s Deedee Sun asked Jessica Ang, the senior workplace health and safety leader at the Kent fulfillment center, about the safety concerns.

Reporter: The criticism is that warehouse workers are hurt at twice the rate of the industry average throughout Amazon as a whole. What is your response to that?

Jessica Ang: I think that’s misleading. I think when they’re looking at numbers, they’re not recognizing that year after year, we’re actually seeing a huge decrease on injuries. At least on my side, I can see it.

Reporter: Are you saying that’s not true (year over year increased injury rates)?

Ang: I can talk about my site. That’s definitely misleading on there. We see a decrease year over year. So yeah, I don’t think that’s an accurate representation of our injuries.

Reporter: I know one of the accusations that has come up is that during Prime Day(s) and during holidays, workplace injury, especially for warehouse employees, increases. … Do injuries go up during Prime Day(s) or holidays?

Ang: You know, when I’m thinking about that, I don’t see that. Um. I’m trying to think since it’s been COVID. I don’t think so. We’d have to look at the data again. I’d have to look.

KIRO7 requested injury data for the past three years for the Kent fulfillment center. Amazon did not provide that data. But as part of a statement, it expressed that “Reveal is misinformed and guided by a sense of activism rather than journalism. The reporter is misinterpreting data …” (Full statement from Amazon at the end of article.)

A former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration defended the Reveal report on Twitter, saying, “He (Reveal reporter) did not get it wrong — Amazon did.”

Ang said Amazon’s investment in COVID-19 safety changes is a testament to safety in itself.

“It is super high priority and really important for us to make sure our folks are safe and healthy,” Ang said. “I think Amazon does a fantastic job,” she said.

Here is the full statement from Amazon on the Reveal investigation:

“We strongly refute the claims that we’ve misled anyone. At Amazon, we are known for obsessing over customers—but we also obsess about our employees and their safety. Reveal is misinformed and guided by a sense of activism rather than journalism. The reporter is misinterpreting data, and the very internal documents he claims to have obtained ultimately illustrate one thing—we have a deep focus on the safety of our teams. We look at a variety of metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of our safety programs, but Reveal is misinformed regarding an OSHA safety metric that measures days away and restricted or transferred work (known as a DART rate) as something the reporter mistakenly calls a serious incident rate. The reality is that there is no such OSHA or industry ‘serious incident rate,’ and our DART rate is actually supportive of employees as it encourages someone with any type of injury, for example a small strain or sprain, to stay away from work until they’re better. While we often accommodate employees with restrictions so that they can continue to work with full pay and benefits, we don’t believe an employer should be penalized when it encourages an associate to remain away from work if that will better promote their healing. As a company, while we constantly learn and improve from the past, we focus on inventing programs that create a safer work environment, and we provide comprehensive health benefits starting on day one of employment. We continue to see improvements in injury prevention and reduction through programs focused on improved ergonomics, delivering guided physical and wellness exercises, providing mechanical workstation assistance equipment, improving workstation setup and design, forklift telematics, and forklift guardrails to separate equipment from pedestrians—to name a few.”

Regarding its investments, Amazon stated:

"So far in 2020, we have committed over $1B to new investments in operations safety measures, ranging from technology investments in safety to masks, gloves, and the enhanced cleaning and sanitization required to protect employees from the spread of Covid-19. In addition, we expanded our global workplace health and safety team to more than 5,000 employees who use Amazon’s innovation, technology and data insights to ensure the highest standards to keep our employees safe.

“Our investments in safety training and education programs, technology, and new safety infrastructure are working. We continue to see improvements through programs focused on improved ergonomics, delivering guided physical and wellness exercises to our associates at their workstation, mechanical workstation assistance equipment, improving workstation setup and design, forklift telematics, forklift guardrails to separate equipment from pedestrians, and parking lot improvements—to name a few.  At Amazon, we seek to accurately report across all sites, which means recording all injuries or illnesses that meet the OSHA criteria for recordkeeping and ensuring that we learn from these incidents and improve each day. While any incident is one too many, we are continuously learning and improving our programs to prevent future incidents.”