Last Sunday, March 20, marked the 21st anniversary of one of the greatest crimes in American labor history: President George W. Bush’s signing of Senate Joint Resolution 6 which repealed OSHA’s ergonomics standard that had been issued just 4 months earlier. Two and a half years later, Washington state voters, succumbing to scurrilous lies and job blackmail from the state’s business community, voted to repeal the state’s ergonomics standard.
Ergonomics regulations may have gone away, but neither the hazards nor the musculoskeletal injuries hundreds of thousands of workers suffer every year disappeared — nationally, nor in Washington. Nor at Amazon.
Two days after that anniversary, on March 22, 2022 Washington State OSHA announced a $60,000 citation for multiple “Willful Serious” ergonomics violations, filed under Washington OSHA’s general duty clause, at Amazon’s warehouse and fulfillment center in Kent, Washington. According to a Press Release from the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries’ (L&I), which houses Washington OSHA, the Amazon Kent inspection “found 10 of the 12 processes L&I evaluated create a serious hazard for work-related back, shoulder, wrist, and knee injuries…. L&I ergonomists found that many Amazon jobs involve repetitive motions, lifting, carrying, twisting, and other physical work. Workers are required to perform these tasks at such a fast pace that it increases the risk of injury.”
“There is a direct connection between Amazon’s employee monitoring and discipline systems and workplace musculoskeletal disorders” — Washington Department of Labor and Industries
But the most impactful violation did not just address the specific hazards (such as repetitive motions and carrying). The citations states that “There is a direct connection between Amazon’s employee monitoring and discipline systems and workplace musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).”
Eric Frumin, Health & Safety Director for the Strategic Organizing Center (SOC) — a coalition of labor unions — stated that “Washington OSHA’s unprecedented citation sends a clear message to Amazon: your punishing profit model is under sharper scrutiny than ever before, and you will be held accountable for failing to protect workers from serious injuries.”
Failure to Learn
Was Amazon shocked and surprised and full of contrition that it was injuring its employees and violating the law?
As the L&I press release points out,
Because L&I has cited Amazon for similar violations at three Washington locations, the company is aware of these hazards. Therefore, the most recent violation is classified as a willful violation and comes with a significantly higher penalty than those issued as a result of earlier inspections. 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.
“Washington OSHA’s unprecedented citation sends a clear message to Amazon: your punishing profit model is under sharper scrutiny than ever before, and you will be held accountable for failing to protect workers from serious injuries.” — Eric Frumin, Health & Safety Director for the Strategic Organizing Center
Kent was the third location in the last year where L&I has issued a General Duty Clause ergonomics violation.
Last May, L&I issued a groundbreaking serious citation at Amazon’s Dupont (Washington) warehouse which targeted the algorithmic discipline system the company uses to enforce production quotas. That citation covered the same risk factors: “ergonomic risk factors including “repetitive motions, lifting, carrying, pulling, pushing, forceful exertions, twisting, bending, long reaches, awkward postures, and combinations thereof, which have caused, and are likely to continue to cause musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).”
Dupont had the worst OSHA “Days Away, Restricted or Transferred” (DART) rate of any significantly-sized warehouse in the Amazon chain in 2019 and 2020, according to an SOC analysis. That means injuries so severe that employees missed time or had to be put on some kind of light duty.
Why was the citation considered to be “groundbreaking?” Because, OSHA has identified Amazon’s algorithmic discipline system as a root cause of the injuries, for the first time citing a company’s employee monitoring and discipline systems as a cause of workplace MSDs.
And if that citation didn’t make an impact on the company, a June 2021 Washington Post analysis found that Amazon’s problem was not just limited to Washington state:
New work-related injury data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration showed those jobs can be more dangerous than at comparable warehouses. Since 2017, Amazon reported
a higher rate of serious injury incidents that caused employees to miss work or be shifted to light-duty tasks than at other warehouse operators in retail.
In 2020, for every 200,000 hours worked at an Amazon warehouse in the United States — the equivalent of 100 employees working full time for a year — there were 5.9 serious incidents, according to the OSHA data. That’s nearly double the rate of non-Amazon warehouses. In comparison, Walmart, the largest private U.S. employer and one of Amazon’s competitors, reported 2.5 serious cases per 100 workers at its facilities in 2020.
(The SOC initially obtained Amazon’s injury data from OSHA’s public release of employer injury records and provided its own analysis exclusively to The Post, which then conducted a further analysis of the company’s data.)
The Post found that Amazon workers had suffered “more than 24,400 reported cases at 638 Amazon warehouses in 2020. More than 10,800 injuries resulted in employees missing work while they recovered, according to the OSHA data, while about 13,600 shifted to light-duty tasks as a result of their injuries.”
And needless to say, Amazon is no small player when it comes to the American workplace. The Post points out that Amazon “now accounts for about 40 percent of online retail in the United States, according to eMarketer, as e-commerce surges to 13 percent of total U.S. retail, according to the Commerce Department, pushed even further by the pandemic….Amazon’s rapid hiring over the past several years has made it the nation’s second-largest private employer behind Walmart.”
A recent report by Reveal showed that injury rates in 2019 were “especially acute at robotic facilities and during Prime Week and the holiday peak.” The Reveal report described how Amazon has always had computerized monitoring programs that track how many items an employee scans every hour and write up workers who weren’t hitting their targets. And if you don’t hit your targets, you can be disciplined and fired. But robotic automation, combined with Amazon’s disciplinary program, made worker conditions more dangerous, as Amazon worker, Cecilia Hoyos, described to Reveal:.
Those quotas changed dramatically when the robots arrived at Amazon. Company officials promised they’d save workers such as Hoyos from the fatigue of walking miles a day to find customer orders. All they would have to do is stand in place and grab things.
“We thought it was so cool,” she said. But she soon wished she were back to walking all day. Instead of greeting colleagues as she moved through the facility, she was isolated at a workstation, and standing 10 hours a day doing repetitive motions proved to be much harder on her body, Hoyos said.
The robots were too efficient. They could bring items so quickly that the productivity expectations for workers more than doubled, according to a former senior operations manager who saw the transformation. And they kept climbing. At the most common kind of warehouse, workers called pickers – who previously had to grab and scan about 100 items an hour – were expected to hit rates of up to 400 an hour at robotic fulfillment centers.
The SOC’s 2021 analysis showed that the same pattern continued in 2020, with the injury rates at robotic facilities continuing to outstrip rates at non-robotic warehouses, even as Amazon spokespeople attempted to reinforce the official company line that robots were good for worker safety.
OSHA’s “Feasible Means of Abatement”
So what’s the solution here? Amazon obviously has big problems. How is this poor little company supposed to deal with all these hazards and injuries?
Well, in case Amazon can’t afford to hire experts, Washington OSHA has come to the rescue.
But first, a little OSHA detail here. Be patient.
Because there is no ergonomics standard in Washington, L&I is forced to use the “General Duty Clause” which requires employees to provide a safe workplace. There are 4 requirements of a General Duty Clause violation: 1) There must be a hazard. 2. The hazard must be serious. 3. It must be a “recognized” hazard (“recognized” by the employer or by the industry), and 4. There must be a “feasible means of abatement.” In other words, there must be some way to eliminate or reduce the hazard.
And every OSHA General Duty Clause citation comes complete with lots of suggested “feasible means of abatement,” allowing the employer flexibility to choose different means as long as they are effective in reducing or eliminating the hazard.
In case Amazon can’t afford to hire experts, Washington OSHA has come to the rescue. Every OSHA General Duty Clause citation comes complete with lots of suggested “feasible means of abatement,” allowing the employer flexibility to choose different means as long as they are effective in reducing or eliminating the hazard.
Washington state’s L&I provided some helpful suggestions in the two citations cited above. For example, the May 2021 citations provided these “feasible means of abatement that can reduce or eliminate the hazards that workers are facing every day (emphasis added):”
- Telescoping conveyors with height-adjustable worker platforms to reduce awkward lifting when loading and unloading trailers.
- Vacuum lifts for palletizing and de-palletizing products.
- Layer pickers or pallet transfer stations for transferring products from one pallet to another.
- Spring-platform carts to reduce awkward lifting when moving products from one process to another.
- Powered cart tuggers and electric pallet jacks to reduce pushing and pulling forces when moving heavier loads.
- Height-adjustable platforms for associates or for Kiva shelves to reduce awkward lifting during stow and pick tasks.
- Structured job rotation designed to reduce overloading individual employees.
- Setting the pace of work for each process based on the results of ergonomics risk analysis.
- Full implementation of Amazon’s Ergonomics Program
- Establish work-rest cycles based on ergonomics analysis
- Improved training that includes information on more effective control measures and encourages employee input on solutions to risks in their work.
Amazon’s Better Way
So did Amazon implement Washington OSHA’s suggestions? Not so much, as last week’s willful violations indicate.
But don’t lose faith. Amazon says it is trying hard to become the “Earth’s Safest Place to Work,” according to Amazon founder and Executive Chairman Jeff Bezos. Why? Because, of course, “the health and safety of employees is Amazon’s number one priority.”
Not speed, not profits. Safety.
Good to know.
But they’re having none of this OSHA ergonomic garbage. Amazon has a better way.
Instead of installing like spring-platforms or height adjustable platforms, or changing the pace of work or employing ergonomic analysis to establish work-rest cycles or any other measures that would actually address the risk factors and reduce the hazards, Amazon had a new “Working Well” program that provides employees with “physical and mental activities, wellness exercises, and healthy eating support that are scientifically proven to help them recharge and reenergize, and ultimately reduce the risk of injury.”
Instead of actually addressing the risk factors and reducing the hazard, Amazon’s “Working Well” program provides employees with “physical and mental activities, wellness exercises, and healthy eating support that are scientifically proven to help them recharge and reenergize, and ultimately reduce the risk of injury.”
For example, Amazon’s program offers:
- Health & Safety Huddles: These include education on “strong body mechanics, wellness topics, and ongoing safety education.” These include “short interactive videos” on subjects like proper ways of “gripping and handling, pushing and pulling, nutrition, and more.”
- Wellness Zones: These are “dedicated spaces” for “voluntary stretching and muscle recovery” Oh, and more videos “to help employees proactively improve their health and wellness in areas like body mechanics, wellness topics like best practices in stretching, ongoing safety education, and more.”
- AmaZen: AmaZen provides individual kiosks that guide Amazon employees “through mindfulness practices in individual interactive kiosks at buildings.” Again, short videos “featuring easy-to-follow wellbeing activities, including guided meditations, positive affirmations, calming scenes with sounds, and more.”
Amazon thinks that huddles, wellness zones, mindfulness practices, better nutrition “and more” should be enough to do the trick better than actually reducing the stress on employees backs and limbs. Amazon’s Vice President in charge of Workplace Health and Safety assures us that “Amazon’s system of performance metrics for how fast employees work, referred to as rate, will not change. ‘Safety and performance targets can go hand in hand, and that will continue to be the case,'” according to MacDougall.
Clearly if huddles, wellness zones, mindfulness practices don’t prevent you from getting hurt, you’re clearly doing something wrong, injuries are your fault and you probably aren’t well suited to be an Amazon employees.
Do did Amazon’s better way work? Is the company now “Earth’s Safest Place to Work?”
The willful violations issued last week along with the injury data behind them would argue “not even close.”
And clearly if huddles, wellness zones, mindfulness practices don’t prevent you from getting hurt, you’re clearly doing something wrong, injuries are your fault and you probably aren’t well suited to be an Amazon employees. Right?
From Failure to Cooperate…
Amazon is not going gentle into that good night of OSHA compliance. Far from it.
Amazon attempted to delay the abatement deadlines ordered by L&I in the May 2021 DuPont citation. Under federal OSHA law, employers are not required to abate (fix) the problems OSHA has identified while the citation is under appeal. Depending on the circumstance, final determination of appeals can be quite lengthy — sometimes taking years to resolve.
Washington OSHA, on the other hand, operates under a slightly different law that has no automatic provision allowing employers to delay abatement. In Washington, employers are required to fix serious dangers that continue to threaten ongoing harm to workers, even during appeals, until an appeals court determines that the violation is wrong or the abatement methods are not “feasible.” An abatement stay can only be granted if the company can show that during the period of the stay, working conditions would not “result in death or serious physical harm to a worker.”
In May 2021, Amazon applied to the Washington Board of Industrial Appeals for just such a delay. Washington OSHA opposed Amazon’s appeal, accusing the company of “requesting that it be allowed to do almost nothing to lower its injury rates over the course of the several years this matter is likely to be in the court system.” Amazon claimed that its existing ergonomic program should suffice, but ergonomic experts Drs. Robert Harrison and David Rempel provided representations warning that Amazon’s “ergonomics program” is “primarily a body mechanics program and not a well-developed ergonomics program.”
Harrison and Rempel pointed out that Amazon’s program does not include not include a systematic review of injury rates to identify and target high-risk jobs, nor does the program include
an intervention program based on the well-known, standard occupational health and safety understanding of hierarchy of interventions (elimination of risk, engineering controls, administrative controls, then PPE). A well-developed ergonomics program for order picking systematically identifies risks for workstations and implements engineering interventions to reduce risks. Examples of such interventions are, using powered lift and moving equipment, placement of product that considers lifting posture and product weight, redesign racks to reduce reach and bending, etc.
Harrison and Rempel also note that Amazon’s program does not ” touch on the issues of the pace of work required of its employees; the role of the quota system; the hours worked, especially over-time; and provision of breaks. These factors are very important contributors to muscle fatigue and injury”
The Appeals Board agreed with Washington OSHA and declined to provide a stay of abatement to Amazon. And judging from the subsequent “willful” violation at the Kent facilities, it seems likely that Amazon continued to refuse to implement the abatement measure included in the L&I citation.
…To Outright Defiance
Resistance then evolved into outright defiance. As Business Insider reported last December
In the documents filed last week, three state inspectors accused Amazon of “multiple” and “direct” attempts to “undermine our data collection” at Washington facilities since the citation in May. Their statements were attached to a request from the state attorney general’s office for a warrant forcing Amazon to allow inspectors full access to its warehouses, which a Seattle court granted last week.
In two cases, Amazon attempted to bar inspectors from entering its warehouses, the state said, including once by refusing to allow an inspector who had left the facility on break to re-enter without a warrant. Amazon also attempted to interfere with regulators’ investigation in other ways, the state said. Company officials at warehouses in Kent, Washington, and DuPont told warehouse workers they did not need to comply with state investigators, and would “consistently” remove workers or tell them they “immediately needed to leave their work and receive training” when an inspector was monitoring them, according to the report.
Amazon also resisted providing safety data requested by OSHA as well as requests to use wearable technology to monitor the probability of some musculoskeletal disorders like strains, tendinitis, and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Sounds like Amazon executives may need to up their dose of AmaZen.
The King County Superior Court was not amused. The Court ordered Amazon to stop interfering with state investigators.
The defiance of OSHA is particularly troubling considering that Amazon’s Vice President in charge of Workplace Health and Safety, Heather MacDougall’s previous job was Chairman of the federal
Washington State OSHA will continue to focus on Amazon’s working conditions and its issuance of a rare “willful” violation shows that the agency is serious. But Amazon has a large number of facilities outside of Washington, many under federal jurisdiction. Considering that workers at Amazon suffer injuries at twice the rate of similar non-Amazon facilities across the country, SOC’s Frumin argues that “It’s time for the federal government to join state efforts to hold Amazon to its legal, ethical and moral responsibility to protect its own employees from the very real danger of career-threatening injuries.” According to Frumin, federal OSHA has never issued an ergonomics citation that addresses an employer’s enforcement policy — and discipline system that forces workers to meet dangerous quotas. OSHA observers are hopeful, despite the fact that the agency remains hobbled by a low budget and lack of in-house ergonomists
Finally, not unrelated to the health and safety struggles of Amazon workers, two Amazon warehouses — in Staten Island, NY and Bessemer, AL — are reaching the conclusion of organizing campaigns. A union victory will re-enforce Amazon workers’ fight for a safe workplace. And it’s not just ergonomic issues. Last fall, two Amazon workers denied sick leave die within hours of each other and six Amazon employees died at work in a tornado in Illinois last December. And then there was this incident just last week. Amazon workers are long overdue for a contract with strong safety and health language.