According to a recent story in the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call, workers at an Amazon.com warehouse facility near Allentown were forced to put up with some pretty horrendous working conditions during the record heat waves that scorched the U.S. earlier this summer.
The story, by Morning Call reporter Spencer Soper, is based on interviews with 20 current and former workers at the facility, which–like many Amazon warehouses–has a large staff of temporary employees who are paid between $11 and $12 per hour. It’s tough work, with workers graded on how many items they can pick and sort within a specified time–those who can’t keep up the fast pace are quickly shown the door, the workers said.
That brisk pace did not slow down even when the heat index inside the warehouse exceeded 110 degrees this summer, according to the story. In fact, during the heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics in ambulances stationed outside the warehouse to treat workers who suffered from dehydration or other forms of heat stress. Sources told Soper that at least two pregnant workers had to be attended to by nurses during one heat wave. The conditions led an ER doctor at a nearby hospital to contact OSHA to report “unsafe conditions” at the site after he treated several Amazon workers for heat-related ailments. One former worker told Soper that at Amazon, unlike other warehouse facilities where he’d previously worked, loading dock doors were kept shut during heat waves because the company was concerned about theft. “Imagine if it’s 98 degrees outside and you’re in a warehouse with every single dock door closed,” the worker told Soper.
After OSHA inspeacted the facility following complaints, Amazon took steps to mitigate the heat in the facility, which included installing more fans and cooling units and providing workers with fresh fruit, water and popsicles during hot weather. However, one source told Soper that even after the changes were made, conditions on the warehouse’s upper floors during heat waves were “like working in a convection oven while blowdrying your hair.”
Amazon declined to be interviewed directly for the story, but it sent the reporter a statement, attributed to the warehouse’s general manager, that said “The safety and welfare of our employees is our No. 1 priority at Amazon, and as the general manager, I take that responsibility seriously. We go to great lengths to ensure a safe work environment, with activities that include free water, snacks, extra fans and cooled air during the summer.”
Given the nature of Amazon’s business, the need to maintain a very fast pace in its warehouses is understandable. Its concerns about theft, or “inventory shrinkage,” in industry parlance, are also understandable. But I can’t help wondering why a company like Amazon, renowned for its technological prowess, can’t figure out a way to keep its employees from feeling like hot dogs roasting on a spit while they work like madmen to keep the warehouses running smoothly? And why should a savvy company like Amazon need an OSHA inspection to motivate it to take such basic steps to keep the environments in its warehouses somewhat bearable? You’re telling me Amazon can’t figure out a way to prevent theft without keeping all the doors in its warehouses tightly shut during 100-degree plus weather? For all the fussing going on these days about the NLRB’s allegedly pro-union bias, it’s important to remember that stuff like this is what really encourages the unions to come a-knockin’.