OSHA asks Amazon to improve severe weather safety after warehouse collapse

Workplace safety officials have ordered Amazon to review its weather policies and take new precautions after six workers died in a warehouse collapse in Illinois.

The letter released Tuesday by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration outlined some issues with Amazon’s handling of a direct tornado in Edwardsville in December. The megaphone that would be used to alert workers to inclement weather was locked and inaccessible, and some workers told OSHA investigators they were never told where to shelter in place in such a situation.

But officials said Amazon followed “minimum federal safety guidelines” for severe weather and opted not to fine the tech giant for the fatalities. The six workers who died worked for outside contractors who handle Amazon deliveries. A seventh worker was seriously injured.

“Amazon and all employers should go above and beyond the minimum requirements,” Doug Parker, the head of OSHA, said in a call with reporters Tuesday. “Employers must have a plan that protects all workers and everyone on the property in the event of a disaster.”

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 has been issued”.

“OSHA’s investigation found no violations or citations, but we are constantly looking to innovate and improve our safety measures and have already begun conducting safety and emergency preparedness drills extra,” Nantel said.

According to the “danger alert” letter sent to Amazon, managers began 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 on the north side of the building, but 10 workers, including five of those who died, ended up in a bathroom on the south end of the facility, near a loading dock.

“Amazon and all employers should go above and beyond the minimum requirements.”

– Doug Parker, Director of OSHA

Aaron Priddy, regional director for OSHA, said the tornado struck right next to that area of ​​the warehouse, ripping the roof off and collapsing the west wall. Priddy said investigators could not determine for certain why the workers ended up there – because they were told to go to the bathroom (in this case, the wrong one), or because it was the most logical place to go near a loading dock with no other structured rooms.

“We know there was confusion about exactly where to report,” said Priddy, who drafted the letter to Amazon. “It really critically highlights the importance of pre-planning.”

Priddy wrote that Amazon’s emergency response plan was not suited to weather events likely to hit Edwardsville. Rather than being “tailored with specific instructions”, the plan was generalized and included scenarios unlikely to occur in the region, such as a hurricane. Amazon’s plan indicated 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 extreme weather specifically, but could fine a company under what’s called the “general obligation” clause, which basically states that employers have an obligation to protect workers from harm.

Amazon responded “as one would expect of any employer,” Priddy said. “But we have identified several opportunities where Amazon could improve its weather response plan.”

OSHA officials said Amazon must make sure everyone, including contractors, participates in extreme 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, not just fires.

This story has been updated with Amazon’s comment.

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