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Report: Injury Rates Rising At Amazon Warehouses, Including In Charlotte Area

Robert Scoble

Amazon officials have been saying the rate of serious injuries in their warehouses has been improving with hefty spending on safety measures. However, data from more than 150 Amazon fulfillment centers, including those in North Carolina and South Carolina, indicate that's not the case.

Those internal records were obtained by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. They show not only are injury rates rising, but last year Amazon's rate was nearly double the most recent industry standard. Will Evans reported that story.

Lisa Worf: Good morning, Mr. Evans.

Will Evans: Good morning.

Worf: So, first, when we talk about serious injuries, what does that mean?

Evans: You know, we're talking about injuries that are serious enough to prevent you from continuing to do your job. So, either you end up off of work or you have to have some kind of job restriction that doesn't allow you to do the same job. Maybe you need to be put on light duty. You can't do the same things that you were able to do before.

Worf: And what is the injury rate, and how much has it grown?

Evans: Well, the injury rate overall nationwide was 7.7 serious injuries per 100 employees last year. That had grown 33% from 2016 and is nearly double the most recent industry standard. To give you a sense, that's 14,000 of those kinds of injuries last year.

Worf: Amazon says it's invested tens of millions of dollars in safety, so why aren't these injury rates going down?

Evans: Well, that's a great question. I mean, they are spending a lot of money. The safety teams have a lot of safety initiatives, but we found that they're really focused on technological or design changes and not actually addressing the workload that the workers have — how fast they're going, they're not implementing recommendations that OSHA has put forward years ago for how to reduce some of these injuries.

So, they're not really addressing things that might actually affect the production speed of Amazon. They're trying to solve it with technology, and it's not working.

Worf: For example, you point out in your piece that there's many warehouses that employ robots to kind of help with the warehousing process. And the Amazon executives have said, 'Hey, this is a bonus as far as safety,' but it turns out it doesn't look like the data bears that out. How come?

Evans: That's right. They've said over and over again: Robots make the job safer. These are robots that lug huge stacks of consumer products to the worker who no longer has to walk miles and miles of warehouse floor to find the right thing. They just stand at their workstation and grab an item. That was seen as this great benefit to the worker, but what happens is the robots have made it so efficient that the expectations for the workers are much higher. Now, instead of having to pick out 100 orders per hour, you'd have to pick out 300 orders per hour or even up to 400 orders per hour.

That's just a very high pace and a lot of repetitive motions, the same repetitive motions over and over again for 10-hour shifts, sometimes 12-hour shifts, five days in a row. And people's bodies are wearing out.

Worf: When you talk about reducing workload, it is that repetitive motion that you would slow down and that is thought to possibly lessen the number of injuries, then?

Evans: Or have another break or rotate jobs through the day. These are recommendations that OSHA has made years ago when the robots were first introduced because it was flagged as an ergonomic hazard for these workers. And those things just haven't changed. Those recommendations weren't implemented.

Worf: Now, in the Charlotte region, there are three fulfillment centers — two in Charlotte, one in Concord, and then there are also three in South Carolina. Do these warehouses mirror some of those national trends with Amazon?

Evans: They do, actually. I was looking at the warehouse injury rates there, and they've all gone up from 2018 to 2019. The other thing we see in the Carolinas is that the fulfillment center with the worst injury rates is the new robotics one (that) opened in Charlotte in 2019. And it has a serious injury rate that's more than double the industry average and the highest one in the region by far.

And that's the one where these robots that are supposedly making the job safer are. It's the most modern, most efficient, pumping out the most packages, and yet you're seeing the highest rates of injury.

Worf: Is there any indication beyond robots what might be making the rates so high?

Evans: Yeah, there's a couple of things. One is that Amazon has struggled with launching warehouses, and the company has said, you know, "We don't launch until we're ready," but we've seen really high rates of injuries in new warehouses.

Also, the warehouse wasn't open all year last year, but it was open for the busiest times in the holidays, and Amazon has said repeatedly that injury rates do not go up during these times. But we found they actually do. They spike. And so because that warehouse was not open for the full year but was open for the holiday shopping season, that may be why you're seeing higher rates for that year.

Worf: Now, how has Amazon responded to your findings?

Evans: Well, they didn't give us an interview. They didn't directly answer our questions about these findings, but they did send us a statement saying that they have invested lots of money, a billion dollars this year, in the safety initiatives and that their safety initiatives are working.

Worf: Is there any thought that some of those rates are going up because warehouses are just being really diligent about reporting injuries?

Evans: That is one of the talking points that Amazon has given. The problem is we found that some medical providers are being actually pressured to deny care to injured Amazon workers in order to keep injuries off the books, and there have been also OSHA investigations that found that workers were being discouraged from seeking medical care.

Copyright 2021 WFAE. To see more, visit WFAE.

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.
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