The holiday shopping season is in full swing. If you’re like many Americans, a lot of your packages will be coming straight to your door thanks to Amazon. But a report out from Reveal, the publishing platform at the Center for Investigative Reporting, shows a hidden cost to that convenience — injury rates for Amazon warehouse workers are double the industry average.
KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke to Reveal reporter Will Evans, who said it’s what people love about Amazon that’s driving the trend.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: What did you uncover in your investigation that drives these high rates of injury?
Will Evans: We found that the high rates of injury were pretty clearly linked to the production demands that the company puts on the workers. The speed that is the key to Amazon’s success and what its customers love — getting those packages so quickly — means that the company puts intense pressure on workers to hit production quotas that many people feel are unrealistic and lead to a lot of injuries.
CB: Can you describe the work that these warehouse workers are doing and what kinds of injuries come out of that?
WE: They’re giant warehouses. There are hundreds, sometimes thousands of workers who are split into different tasks. Some are putting away items into giant racks. There are pickers who grab the items that people ordered and send them down conveyor belts to the packers who put them in the boxes.
Each of those people are held accountable for a specific number of items per hour. It’s calculated down to the second. The scans are fed into a system that shows managers how fast you’re going, and at the end of the week they’ll get these productivity reports that say whether they hit 100 percent of their expected quota. And if they don’t, they’ll get written up. And if they get written up too many times, they’ll get fired.
They’re willing in many cases to sacrifice their bodies to that. They pull out their backs, they injure their knees, their shoulders. They get carpal tunnel. They result in workers sometimes missing a lot of work and losing their jobs at times. I’ve talked to people who are at home in pain and not sure what to do.
CB: How does Utah’s rate of 10.7 injuries per 100 workers compare to other states around the country with Amazon warehouses?
WE: We looked at more than 20 of these fulfillment centers around the country and found that overall their rate of serious injuries was more than double the industry average. That’s about where the Salt Lake City warehouse is. There are some [Amazon warehouses] that are way higher. You’re talking four times the industry average, up to six times the industry average. Even though it’s in the middle, this is not where you want to be. Twice the average is considered alarming
CB: Around the Mountain West Amazon is expanding, and Salt Lake City is slated to open its second fulfillment center early next year. How important is a center’s opening when it comes to injury rates?
WE: One of the things we noticed in looking at this data was some of the highest injury rates were coming from Amazon warehouses that had robots and Amazon warehouses that were recently opened: the new ones.
What I’ve heard from former Amazon safety managers is sometimes these warehouses are rushed to open before they’re ready. They have to open. They’re on a schedule. And if the safety managers say “There are problems. We’re not ready yet,” it’s production that takes precedence over everything else.
CB: In your story, you detail how cities bid for Amazon’s second headquarters, and how in some of those cases, public officials may have looked the other way when it came to safety in order to bolster their bid. But Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said in an interview that bringing Amazon here was actually one of her biggest regrets as mayor, and that the company ended up not being a very good community partner. Do you see public opinion changing in any way on Amazon’s role in a community?
WE: I think we are seeing somewhat of a turning point. The company is under a lot of scrutiny now. Even people who love Amazon and love the convenience are starting to wake up to the idea that there are costs to this convenience. I hear a lot of people who just feel guilty about it.
They’re not sure what to do because they love the convenience, but don’t want it to impact the workers negatively. And so, I think there is much more conversation about it and realization of all of the other effects that Amazon has as it grows bigger and bigger.
CB: Is reform possible for Amazon or is it just too big?
WE: I mean, reform is always possible, right? I was told that inside Amazon, it is a conversation that is hard to have about how to lower these injury rates because they’re linked to the speed, and Amazon is not going to slow down. It’s hard to solve that problem.
One senior safety manager, a former safety manager, told me we’re never going to fix this problem at Amazon because we’re never going to address the root cause. That’s a depressing viewpoint.
I suppose you could potentially, instead of slowing down, you could have more workers and then have lower production quotas for each worker. That would involve much higher labor costs. So I’m not saying that that’s what the company is going to do.
There are people who do want to fix this. The problem is that people I’ve talked to who wanted to fix this said they couldn’t do it at Amazon, and they were really frustrated about it.