Amazon Fined For ‘Knowingly Putting Workers At Risk’ With Productivity Quotas

Washington state classified the retailer’s violation as “willful” because officials had already cited the same hazards in the past.

Workplace safety officials in Washington state have hit Amazon with a $60,000 fine for “knowingly putting workers at risk” at its massive warehouse in Kent.

Investigators with the state’s Department of Labor and Industries attributed the dangers in part to Amazon’s well-known productivity quotas. Working in one of the retailer’s fulfillment centers requires a number of repetitive motions, such as bending, lifting and twisting, at “such a fast pace that it increases the risk of injury,” the agency said in a statement.

Officials said they classified the violation as “willful” — a more serious category than typical citations — because they had already cited Seattle-based Amazon for similar problems at three facilities. Ergonomists with the state evaluated a dozen work processes inside the Kent facility and found “serious” hazards in 10 of them.

“The company has not yet made necessary changes to improve workplace safety and has consistently denied the association between pace of work and injury rates,” the agency said.

Insider was first to report on the citation. One of the ergonomists who inspected the facility told the outlet that they had tried to calculate the risk of injury but Amazon’s productivity rates “broke the model.”

The fine may seem paltry for a retail giant that had $14.3 billion in profits last quarter, but workplace safety penalties in the U.S. tend to be small by statute. In Washington state, the penalty for a citation like the one issued against Amazon usually tops out at $70,000, though it can be greater under special circumstances.

Amazon said in a statement that it plans to appeal the fine: “We strongly disagree with [the agency’s] claims and don’t believe they are supported by the facts.”

The company also appealed the three other citations issued by the state. The agency that issued the fines is a state equivalent of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“The company’s merciless focus on volume and work pace, coupled with constant surveillance of its employees, directly puts workers’ health and safety at risk.”

- Eric Frumin, Strategic Organizing Center

Washington state said Amazon has two months to submit a plan explaining how it will address the safety issues. The citation offers 11 recommendations to Amazon, including using special equipment to reduce “awkward lifting,” and rotating workers among job tasks “to reduce overloading individual employees.”

Amazon workers are closely monitored for their work productivity as they pick, pack and ship out orders to customers. The retailer has insisted that its expectations are safe, but many workers and advocacy groups have complained that the pressure to meet quotas under threat of termination can lead to injury and burnout.

The Strategic Organizing Center, a union coalition that has analyzed Amazon injury data in the past, said the citation showed that the company was under “sharper scrutiny.”

“The company’s merciless focus on volume and work pace, coupled with constant surveillance of its employees, directly puts workers’ health and safety at risk,” Eric Frumin, the group’s health and safety director, said in a statement.

A 2020 investigation by Reveal found that Amazon had concealed higher-than-publicly-known injury rates. The retailer has taken heat for its “time off task” policy that dings workers for time spent away from the workstation, and it announced last year that it would rework the metric to be less punitive.

Last year, California implemented a new law taking aim at Amazon’s productivity quotas, forbidding companies from implementing work rates that prevent workers from using the bathroom. The bill applies to all large warehouses in the state, but its sponsor singled out the world’s largest online retailer by name when the governor signed it.

Union supporters in Alabama have cited the work pace as one reason they want to bargain collectively with Amazon. The company defeated a union drive at its Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse last year, but labor officials later determined that Amazon had interfered in the election and broken the law. A do-over election is currently underway.

This post has been updated with comment from Amazon.

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