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Amazon Workplace Safety Inspections Were Weeks in the Making

July 19, 2022, 8:01 PM

High-level OSHA officials and sometimes federal prosecutors held numerous meetings related to workplace safety issues at Amazon.com Inc. warehouses in the weeks and months leading up to Monday’s inspections, records obtained by Bloomberg Law show.

The inspections of Amazon distribution centers near New York City, Chicago, and Orlando, Fla., were the culmination of weekly Occupational Safety and Health Administration meetings that started in May, according to agency meeting calendars obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The US Attorney’s Office said in a statement Monday that the civil division is investigating potential worker safety hazards at Amazon warehouses nationwide and possible fraudulent conduct intended to hide injuries from OSHA and other enforcers.

Among the frequent participants in the online sessions were OSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary Amanda Edens, who oversees OSHA’s enforcement directorate, and Assistant US Attorney Jacob Lillywhite of the Southern District of New York’s civil division, the meeting notices said.

Eric Frumin, safety and health director for union federation the Strategic Organizing Center, said that in his 48 years with organized labor this is the first time he’s seen a US attorney’s office take a major role in an OSHA workplace safety inquiry.

“I can’t recall the Justice Department so closely involved at the outset of an inspection,” he said.

OSHA on Tuesday declined to discuss the meetings. The US Attorney’s Office didn’t respond to a similar request.

Worker Outreach

As part of its involvement, the US Attorney’s Office also began asking former and current Amazon employees to contact federal prosecutors and provide information about working conditions.

Among the questions asked in an online survey are:

  • “Have you seen workers working in unsafe ways to try to meet their productivity/rate requirements?”
  • “Do you believe that Amazon discourages workers from reporting injuries?” and
  • “Do you believe Amazon managers retaliate against workers who report injuries?”

OSHA said in a statement that Monday’s inspections were based on referrals from the US Attorney. The agency declined to say how many facilities were inspected and whether the probes were limited to issues specified in the referrals.

Typically, a complaint-based OSHA inspection is limited to the hazards prompting the complaint.

Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel in a written statement said the company expects to be cleared. “We’ll of course cooperate with OSHA in their investigation, and we believe it will ultimately show that these concerns are unfounded,” she said.

OSHA inspections of Amazon facilities rarely result in citations. For example, in 2021 OSHA launched 31 inspections at Amazon work sites and only three led to citations. Fines totaled $20,907.

Frumin said he hopes OSHA and the US Attorney’s Office will investigate ergonomic issues such as the work pace at Amazon warehouses. A 2022 report from the Strategic Organizing Center concluded that Amazon uses productivity and monitoring systems to increase pressure on workers to move at a fast pace that leads to muscle strains and repetitive motion injuries.

He pointed to Washington State’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health proposing in March a $60,000 fine against one Amazon warehouse for ergonomic violations.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at BRolfsen@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Laura D. Francis at lfrancis@bloomberglaw.com