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Amazon warehouse inspections find workers exposed to safety hazards

The findings are the latest in a Labor Department investigation fueled by years of reports of unsafe work conditions and injuries.

(CN) — The U.S. Department of Labor announced Wednesday that its Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued citations to three Amazon warehouse facilities for failing to provide safe workplaces.

After conducting inspections last July at warehouse facilities in Deltona, Florida, Waukegan, Illinois, and New Windsor, New York, OSHA found that workers were exposed to ergonomic hazards, putting them at high risk of musculoskeletal injuries.

According to the citations, these ergonomic hazards involve the high frequency with which workers are required to lift packages and other items, the heavy weight of these items, and awkward movements used to lift them such as twisting, bending and long reaches. The Florida warehouse was also cited for exposing workers to "struck-by hazards."

“Each of these inspections found work processes that were designed for speed but not safety, and they resulted in serious worker injuries,” said Doug Parker, the Labor Department's assistant secretary for occupational safety and health.

OSHA investigators found that these Amazon workers experienced high rates of musculoskeletal disorders after reviewing on-site injury logs.

The online retail giant faces $60,269 in proposed penalties for the violations and has 15 business days to comply with the law, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director or contest the citations before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

Some of OSHA's proposed remedies include an assessment by a "certified professional ergonomist" to develop revised lifting, pushing and pulling techniques and whole-body screening tools that assess biomechanical and postural loading on the body to evaluate workers' risks of musculoskeletal disorders.

Last month, OSHA issued Amazon citations for 14 recordkeeping violations with a total of $29,008 in proposed penalties. The agency accuses the billion-dollar company of failing to record injuries and illnesses, as well as misclassifying workplace injuries as not requiring time off or a job transfer or restriction. In one such case, a worker's head injury was reported as a muscle strain.

Kelly Nantel, a spokesperson for Amazon, said they “strongly disagree with these allegations and intend to appeal.”

“We’ve cooperated fully, and the government’s allegations don’t reflect the reality of safety at out sites,” said Nantel.

She said that Amazon is actively investing in and working towards ways to mitigate injury risk, including a partnership with the National Safety Council.

The findings announced Wednesday are the latest in a mass investigation that is also inspecting Amazon facilities in Aurora, Colorado, Nampa, Idaho, and Castleton, New York, following referrals from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York.

Before stepping down as CEO to become Amazon's executive chairman in July 2021, Jeff Bezos told shareholders that the company was investing $300 million in workplace safety projects, including developing new algorithmically generated staffing schedules that would automatically rotate employees between jobs that use different muscle groups.

However, Bezos' proposed goal of cutting warehouse "recordable incidents" in half by 2025 through new technological innovations appears to be falling short.

Last year, a labor union coalition called the Strategic Organizing Center published a report which analyzed Amazon's 2021 injury data submitted to OSHA. It found that Amazon workers endured nearly 40,000 injuries, a 20% increase from the year before. Eighty-nine percent of the recorded injuries were reportedly so severe they either left workers unable to perform their normal functions or forced them to miss work altogether.

Almost half (49%) of all U.S. warehouse injuries in 2021 involved Amazon workers, according to the report.

Injury rates were also reportedly higher at Amazon’s largely automatic, robotic warehouses than its less automated sites, despite Bezos' claims they would reduce strain on the workers.

The higher rate of injuries is linked to the efficiency of the robots, which increases quotas that human workers can't realistically keep up with. Workers that were previously required to scan about 100 items every hour were then expected to scan about 400 products in the same amount of time.

A separate probe by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries last March also found that an Amazon warehouse in Kent, Washington, was “knowingly putting workers at risk of injury,” resulting in a $60,000 fine.

Amazon appealed the citations and sued the state labor agency in October, arguing that its procedures for remedying alleged workplace hazards violates due process protections under the 14th Amendment.

The company is also facing a consumer protection lawsuit filed by District of Columbia Attorney General Karl A. Racine in December that alleges tips were stolen from drivers and consumers were deceived about the tipping model.

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