SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The U.S. Department of Labor cannot withhold workplace injury data for online retailer Amazon’s warehouses because the law requires those records be released to employees upon request with no restrictions on subsequent disclosures, a federal judge ruled Monday.
Rejecting arguments that limited disclosure mandates were intended to prevent releases to the media, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim found the workplace safety records are not exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act’s Exemption 4, which covers trade secrets and other sensitive business information.
“The court finds that the Form 300As do not contain confidential information under Exemption 4 and cannot be withheld on that basis,” Kim wrote in a 28-page ruling.
The dispute stems from a lawsuit filed in September 2019 over the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)’s refusal to turn over workplace safety records for Amazon warehouses in Massachusetts, Ohio and Illinois. The suit was brought by the Emeryville, California-based Center for Investigative Reporting.
After the suit was filed, the department released employee statements provided to OSHA investigators for Amazon’s Stoughton, Massachusetts, warehouse and a few pages of heavily redacted Form 300As, logs of workplace injuries and illnesses, for warehouses in Ohio and Illinois. The center challenged those redactions and the withholding of workplace injury logs, which the government argued were necessary to protect confidential business information.
In 2016, OSHA finalized a rule requiring certain large employers to submit workplace illness and injury logs each year. It further mandated that employers share the information with workers upon request and physically post the logs in workplaces where employees can see them for three months per year.
Amazon followed those rules but marked the records “confidential” and included warnings asking employees not to share the information with third parties. During a hearing in June, Judge Kim said she found Amazon’s decision to mark the records confidential “disturbing if it’s not confidential under the law.”
In her ruling Monday, Kim noted that Amazon conflated the workplace injury logs with other records that include employees’ personally identifiable and medical information. That sensitive information is included in Form 300 logs, but not the Form 300A logs sought in this case.
Because the law requires companies release Form 300A logs to employees upon request without limiting how that information can be shared, Kim found the data does not qualify as confidential business information exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
“In light of the requirement to construe FOIA exemptions narrowly, finding documents confidential even if they are available to and broadly disclosed to all current and former employees of a large company without any confidentiality or nondisclosure agreements is untenable,” Kim wrote.
Amazon had also argued in a written statement that the illness and injury logs are commercially sensitive because they affect the company’s insurance rates, and that the data guides decisions on where it allocates resources to reduce injuries and illnesses.
The judge did not directly address that argument, but noted that OSHA warned employers in 2016 that it would post the data on a publicly accessible website.
OSHA said it changed its disclosure policy after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its June 2019 decision in Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media. In that 6-3 decision, the court held that companies need not show “substantial competitive harm” would result from the disclosure of confidential information. The term “confidential” simply means data that is “customarily kept private” or “closely held,” the high court ruled.
Despite that new legal precedent, Kim pointed out that OSHA failed to officially change its position on releasing workplace safety data until Aug. 23, 2019, after Amazon had submitted the data.
“OSHA’s statements made after Amazon submitted its documents are not relevant,” Kim wrote.
Kim’s ruling comes just one month after another federal judge in Oakland, California, ruled against the Department of Labor in a similar lawsuit brought by the Center for Investigative Reporting. In that case, U.S. District Judge Donna Ryu ordered the department to release 237,000 workplace injury logs submitted by various employers from Aug. 1, 2017, through Feb. 6, 2018. Like Kim, Ryu also found the companies were already warned the information could be posted on a public website in 2016.
Representatives of Amazon, the U.S. Department of Labor and the Center for Investigative Reporting did not immediately return emails requesting comment Tuesday.
Attorney Diana Baranetsky represented the Center for Investigative Reporting.
U.S. Justice Department lawyer Pamela Johann argued on behalf of the U.S. Department of Labor.