Amazon's moral collapse
On Saturday morning, Amazon founder and executive chairman Jeff Bezos had something on his mind that he needed to share with the world. He was extremely excited to send several very wealthy people into space for 10 minutes.
Bezos reported that everyone was "happy." Though he was not flying into space himself, Bezos dressed in a blue spacesuit anyway.
Just hours earlier, a powerful tornado ripped through an Amazon delivery station in Edwardsville, Illinois, killing six people — Deandre Morrow, 28; Kevin Dickey, 62; Clayton Cope, 29; Etheria Hebb, 24; and Larry E. Virden, 46. They died after portions of the building collapsed on top of them.
These workers could not afford to buy a space flight but had families that loved them and dreams for the future. Hebb, for example, was "a single mother to a 1-year-old son, Malik." Cope was a Navy veteran who tried to help his co-workers find safety as the tornado approached.
Another 45 Amazon workers managed to survive, including one that needed to be airlifted to a hospital for treatment.
The victims were working at the Amazon facility on Friday night even though "the National Weather Service had been warning of possible tornadoes 36 hours ahead of the deaths." Edwardsville is categorized by FEMA as part of "Wind Zone IV, the part of the country at the greatest risk of tornadoes."
Bezos did not acknowledge the deaths at the Amazon facility until he faced an avalanche of criticism about his silence. Finally, about 12 hours after he posted about the space flight, Bezos tweeted a brief acknowledgment of the deaths in Edwardsville. In a tweet, Bezos said he was "heartbroken over the loss of our teammates " and offered his "thoughts and prayers."
The sequence of events illustrates a larger problem with Amazon's business culture, which subordinates worker safety to ruthless efficiency. The top priority is profit and wealth creation for investors — even when it puts workers in harm's way.
When Tropical Depression Ida brought deadly floods to New York City in September, "workers were expected to make their shifts at Amazon." When a heat wave struck the Pacific Northwest in June, Amazon "pushed employees to work at maximum speed" as indoor temperatures approached 90 degrees.
The relentless pace of the work itself also puts Amazon workers at risk. A study "found Amazon warehouse workers are injured at higher rates than those at rival companies." Specifically, in 2020, "there were 5.9 serious injuries for every 100 Amazon warehouse workers, which is nearly 80% higher than the serious injury rate at non-Amazon warehouses."
The problems with Amazon are not limited to the company's handling of a dangerous situation one night in Illinois. They are problems embedded in the structure of the company itself.
Amazon relies on contractors to “avoid liability for accidents and other risks”
Most of the employees at the Edwardsville facility do not work full-time for the company. According to the New York Times, “about 190 people worked at the delivery station across all of its shifts.” Despite this, a Madison County commissioner said that “only seven people at Amazon’s site were full-time employees” and most of the workers at the site were “delivery drivers in their 20s who work as contractors.”
The use of contractors on site resulted in little accountability for which workers were present at the time of the tornado. Mike Fillback, the police chief in Edwardsville, said over the weekend that the authorities had “challenges” in knowing “how many people we actually had at that facility at the time because it’s not a set staff.” Local officials said that the fact that so few of the employees present at the scene were full-time “made it difficult to account for all those who could be missing.”
Most of Amazon’s drivers are contracted “under a program called Delivery Service Partners.” While Amazon has publicly said that they work with contractors so that they can “help support small businesses that can hire in their communities,” both Amazon employees directly involved in the program and industry consultants have said, “it lets the company avoid liability for accidents and other risks, and limits labor organizing in a heavily unionized industry.”
"We never had any tornado drills"
According to NBC News, workers at neighboring facilities in Edwardsville said that “they have little training in preparing for tornadoes” and were even “expected to work through tornado warnings.”
“We’ve never had any tornado drills, nor had we sheltered in place for any of the warnings we’ve had in the past,” an employee who has worked at a nearby Amazon facility for the past two years told NBC. She also said that “during two previous tornado warnings” she was “expected to continue working even when the company sounded alarms.”
Several Amazon employees from across the country have also expressed concerns about a lack of emergency training in warehouses. According to the Intercept, complaints posted to the company’s internal message board revealed that many employees said that they had “never had a tornado or even a fire drill over the course of their careers at Amazon, dating back up to six years.” Several went as far as to say that they “would be unsure of what to do in an emergency.”
“I have been here six and a half years and have never once been involved in a tornado safety drill on my shift, as well as have not taken part in a fire safety drill in about two years,” an Amazon employee told the Intercept. “This whole situation has got me thinking our site really needs to revise its safety drills because you never know what disaster and tragedy can strike.”
Amazon facility constructed "quick" and "cheap"
Amazon’s Edwardsville facility was built using a technique known as tilt-up construction, where slabs of concrete are poured flat and then lifted. The method is known for being quick and cheap, and is frequently used to construct warehouses, office buildings, and retail centers.
The problem is that “tilt-up buildings were not invented for resisting tornadoes,” according to Structural Engineering Professor Grace Yan. Although the warehouse complied with building codes, building codes do not require tilt-up constructions to withstand tornadoes. When the tornado hit the facility on Friday evening, nearly 150 yards of the building was impacted. Walls that were about 40 feet tall and “made out of 11-inch thick concrete” collapsed inward on those inside.
State and local officials in Illinois “said they had begun to inquire about the condition of the warehouse before it collapsed,” according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Earlier this week, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker (D) vowed to look at “issues around whether there are structural challenges with the way those warehouses and that particular one was built." Pritzker also suggested that perhaps “we need to change code based upon the climate change we’re seeing all around us.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration also announced on Monday that it was launching a six-month investigation to determine if there were any workplace safety violations.