Workplace safety officials have ordered Amazon to review its severe weather policies and take new precautions after six workers died in an Illinois warehouse collapse.
The letter issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Tuesday outlined some problems with Amazon’s handling of a direct tornado hit in Edwardsville in December. The megaphone that would be used to alert workers to severe weather was locked and inaccessible, and some workers told OSHA investigators they had never been told where to shelter in place in such a situation.
But officials said Amazon had met “minimal federal safety guidelines” for severe weather and chose not to fine the tech giant over the deaths. All six workers who died worked for outside contractors who handle Amazon deliveries. A seventh worker was severely injured.
“Amazon and all employers should go above minimum requirements,” Doug Parker, the head of OSHA, said on a call with reporters Tuesday. “Employers need to have a plan that protects all workers and all people on the property whenever disaster strikes.”
Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said in a statement that the tornado was “extreme and very sudden,” and that “our team did the right thing, moving people to shelter as soon as the warning was issued.”
“OSHA’s investigation did not find any violations or causes for citations, but we’re constantly looking to innovate and improve our safety measures and have already begun conducting additional safety and emergency preparedness drills,” Nantel said.
According to the “hazard alert” letter sent to Amazon, managers started telling workers to head to the restroom for shelter about 10 minutes before the tornado hit. The designated shelter-in-place location was a restroom in the northern part of the building, but 10 workers, including five of those who died, ended up in a bathroom at the facility’s south end, near a loading dock.
“Amazon and all employers should go above minimum requirements.”
Aaron Priddy, an area director for OSHA, said the tornado struck right near this area of the warehouse, taking off the roof and collapsing the western wall. Priddy said investigators couldn’t determine for sure why workers ended up there — because they were told to get to a bathroom (in this case, the wrong one), or because it was the most logical place to go near a loading dock without other structured rooms.
“We know there was confusion about exactly where to report,” said Priddy, who authored the letter to Amazon. “It just really critically highlights that importance of pre-planning.”
Priddy wrote that Amazon’s emergency response plan was not tailored to weather events likely to hit Edwardsville. Rather than being “customized with specific instructions,” the plan was generalized and included scenarios unlikely to play out in the area, like a hurricane. Amazon’s plan noted evacuation routes for the warehouse but did not identify the shelter-in-place area.
But Priddy also said it was not appropriate to issue a citation against Amazon. OSHA doesn’t have a safety standard for severe weather in particular but could fine a company under what’s known as the “general duty” clause, which broadly states the employers have an obligation to keep workers safe from harm.
Amazon responded “the way we would expect any employer to,” Priddy said. “But we did identify several opportunities in which Amazon could improve their severe weather response plan.”
OSHA officials said Amazon needs to make sure everyone, including contractors, takes part in severe weather drills and knows where to shelter in place. They also said Amazon should create written plans with site-specific guidelines for events like tornadoes, and not just fires.
This story has been updated with comment from Amazon.