In the early days of the pandemic, Gerald Bryson was fired by Amazon after getting into an argument with another employee while protesting safety conditions at the JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island. On Monday, a federal judge ruled that the firing was unlawful, and ordered the company to reinstate Bryson and pay him for the lost time.
The ruling was a victory for Bryson, but not necessarily for his cause. Back in 2020, Bryson was calling for the warehouse to be shut down until serious safety improvements were made. Two years later, the warehouse is up and running, and safety remains a sticking point.
Amazon hired 300,000 employees in 2021, bringing their total U.S. workforce to one million. That's a lot of workers whose daily health and wellness are now in the hands of a single company, and many continue to speak out against its workplace safety conditions.
Justine Medina, an organizer for the Amazon Labor Union and a packer at the JFK8 warehouse, said that Amazon's more lax COVID-era policies, which had allowed a slower pace of work and more breaks throughout the day, faded in recent months with the easing of CDC guidelines.
In this Dec. 17, 2019, file photo, Amazon workers move containers to delivery trucks at an Amazon warehouse facility in Goodyear, Ariziona. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
Medina said the company returned to its "pre-COVID normal," a state of affairs that was already controversial, even before the pandemic produced a spike in ecommerce sales that put increasing demands on the workers that makes two-day delivery possible.
For workers, that meant a return to a rapid, quota-based pace of work, in which managers closely monitor employees and use strict disciplinary measures to keep them in check.
Medina recounted a litany of safety issues, from bad ventilation to restrictions on bathroom breaks to tedious and repetitive tasks that put strain on workers' bodies. "It's actually difficult to explain just how arduous the conditions are until you're working there," she said. "Ambulances are called to the warehouse practically every day to pick up workers."
The Amazon Labor Union successfully unionized JFK 8 earlier this month in a historic win for the U.S. labor movement, but whether the union can address these issues remains to be seen. Contract negotiations are still a long way off, and many labor experts agree that safety concerns are harder to address than clear-cut worker demands like wages and benefits.
"The easiest thing to write into language are really clear points, like how much you make per hour, but it's tougher to articulate quality of life issues in a legal negotiation," said Bryant Simon, a professor at Temple University with an expertise in labor history. "This is not just about pay. This is not just about unions trying to get what's theirs. This is about employees protecting themselves and their bodies for a long life of labor."
Amazon's Safety Record
Medina's anecdotes track with recent data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which paints a picture of a company more focused on meeting quotas than keeping employees safe.
A new report analyzing this data from the Strategic Organizing Center (SOC), a coalition of national labor unions, found that the rate of serious injury at Amazon warehouses (6.8 per 100 workers) was more than double the rate at non-Amazon warehouses (3.3 per 100) in 2021.
Amazon said the increase was related to its pandemic-era hiring spree and that its safety record has actually improved 13 percent since 2019.
"We hired tens of thousands of additional people to help us meet the unforeseen demand from COVID-19 and people turning to Amazon to help them safely get products and supplies during the pandemic," said Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson. "Like other companies in the industry, we saw an increase in recordable injuries during this time from 2020 to 2021 as we trained so many new people."
Whatever the root cause of the increase, the numbers are staggering. Amazon's overall injury rate for 2021 was up 20 percent from the previous year, with nearly 40,000 injuries. In addition, while the company employs 33 percent of U.S. warehouse workers, it was responsible for 49 percent of all injuries.
In his last letter to shareholders before stepping down as CEO, founder Jeff Bezos in 2021 said he was committed to making Amazon "Earth's Safest Place to Work." The company that year also expanded its WorkingWell program, which is basically an employee app for safety instruction videos, and committed to cutting injuries in half by 2025. Based on the SOC report, that would put Amazon on track to reach the industry average in three years.
One year later, CEO Andy Jassy took a different tack, arguing that the company's injury rates are "sometimes misunderstood" and were actually "about average relative to peers."
"We have operations jobs that fit both the 'warehousing' and 'courier and delivery' categories," he explained in his first letter to shareholders. "In the last U.S. public numbers, our recordable incident rates were a little higher than the average of our warehousing peers (6.4 vs. 5.5), and a little lower than the average of our courier and delivery peers (7.6 vs. 9.1)."
As Business Insider noted in a fact-check of Jassy's letter, however, those numbers are from publicly available 2020 data, and don't account for the fact that Amazon is included in the warehouse industry average, which explains why that number is as high as it is.
In this Dec. 5, 2019, file photo, AWS CEO Andy Jassy, discusses a new initiative with the NFL during AWS re:Invent 2019 in Las Vegas. In his first letter to Amazon shareholders, Jassy offered a defense of wages and benefits the company gives its warehouse workers while also vowing to improve injury rates inside the facilities. Jassy, who took over from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos as CEO last July, wrote the company has researched and created a list of the top 100 “employee experience pain points” and is working to solve them. A report released this week by a coalition of four labor unions found Amazon employed 33% of all U.S. warehouse workers in 2021, but was responsible for 49% of all injuries in the industry. (Isaac Brekken/AP Images for NFL, File)
Both executives promised to implement new safety measures, such as automated staffing schedules that rotate workers through jobs that use different muscles and tendons. Bezos last year said that musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) made up 40 percent of injuries at the company.
In the meantime, Amazon is turning to technological solutions. On Thursday, the company announced a $1 billion VC fund aimed at improving warehouse and supply chain technologies. The first round of investments will focus on safety at fulfillment centers, and includes backing for a company called Modjoul that's developing wearable technology that alerts workers when they're moving in a potentially dangerous way. The other investments are in companies working on improved robotics and inventory management.
Amazon's focus on technology, however, might not resonate with employees, as many blame the highly-automated nature of fulfillment centers for their blistering pace of work. Employee-tracking wearables also have a bad track record at Amazon. The company's notorious "time off task" system — which tracks when a worker isn't at their station — has gotten flack for making it difficult for employees to take bathroom breaks.
When asked if workers would be enthusiastic about a new wearable device that tracks their movements, Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls offered an unequivocal "no." "They want us to be machines," he said. "They've called us 'industrial athletes' in the past. We're not industrial athletes. We're people with real body parts. We're not metrics and numbers."
In general, Smalls rejects the idea that solutions to Amazon's safety issues can come from on high. He argues that workers are in the best position to know what's safe for them.
"It can't just be technology created by somebody that doesn't work in a warehouse," he said. "It has to come from the bottom up. That's why having a union is important."
But translating workers' first-hand knowledge into concrete demands is often complicated, and requires first having agreed-upon standards of what constitutes safe and unsafe working conditions. In other words, how many injuries is too many injuries, and what level of risk is acceptable in a given workplace? How does any of this get reflected in a union contract?
"That next step is an inherently complicated and unequal process, because now you have to hammer out a contract, and you have to rely on experts now," said Simon, the labor historian from Temple. "This is why unions at least since Taft-Hartley have become more bureaucratic, because it's really hard for a grassroots worker to handle the collective bargaining process."
It helps when there are specific federal rules and guidelines around a given workplace safety practice, and in many cases there are, but not when it comes to one of the biggest safety concerns for Amazon workers: the pace of work.
Union organizer Christian Smalls speaks following the April 1, 2022, vote for the unionization of the Amazon Staten Island warehouse in New York. - Amazon workers in New York voted Friday to establish the first US union at the e-commerce giant, a milestone for a company that has steadfastly opposed organized labor in its massive workforce. Employees at the Staten Island JFK8 warehouse voted 2,654 to 2,131 in support of the unionizing drive, according to a tally of ballots from the National Labor Relations Board. (Photo by Andrea RENAULT / AFP) (Photo by ANDREA RENAULT/AFP via Getty Images)
"The pace is something that I bet management does not want to negotiate over because that's where profit comes from," said Simon.
Pace, or the rhythm and speed of work, falls under what's called ergonomics — or the study of how work environments impact us physically and psychologically — and companies and lawmakers have been pushing back on efforts to make it a labor issue for decades.
In 2000, the Clinton administration passed a rule under OSHA aimed at curbing repetitive stress injuries. The regulations were the first of their kind and a breakthrough for ergonomics as a safety concern in the workplace. Then, in 2001, President George W. Bush signed off on a Congressional repeal of the rule, calling it "unduly burdensome and overly broad."
"There are no standards today on the pace of work to prevent the kinds of injuries that are happening so severely to Amazon workers," said Eric Frumin, health and safety director for the Strategic Organizing Center and one of the authors of the Amazon injury report.
However, that hasn't stopped the state of Washington's local OSHA branch from issuing violations to multiple Amazon warehouses over safety issues related to the pace of work. The agency invoked a general safety clause in a federal regulation to cite Amazon for "willful" safety violations related to requiring employees to work at a speed that increased their risk of injury.
Absent a specific law around repetitive motion or pace, it's unclear if the citation will pass muster, and Amazon has already said it disagrees with the claims and plans to appeal.
But Frumin still sees the citation as a potential major step forward for safety regulation.
"It's not for nothing that for the first time in OSHA history, an OSHA agency directly connected a company's monitoring and discipline system with its pace of work as a specific violation," Frumin said.
For the moment, the Amazon Labor Union is sticking to scheduling changes as a way to address safety concerns. One of the union's top priorities is ensuring that injured workers get paid time off for the rest of the day.
Unions can also address pace by attacking the disciplinary systems that compel workers to move so fast. If employers are required to provide a "just cause" before firing a worker, it becomes much harder to fire them for not meeting some arbitrary top-down standard.
Amazon has stressed that it plans to get better, but Frumin contends that the issue should be treated like an urgent public health emergency, which shouldn't have to wait for technological changes or even a union contract to be resolved.
"The fight over dangerous workloads at Amazon is a daily fight. These workers are not in a position to wait one day for some agreement with enforceable provisions mandating safer workloads," he said. "Every day, workers at JFK8 face serious hazards."
Nate Holdren, author of "Injury Impoverished: Workplace Accidents, Capitalism, and Law in the Progressive Era," said Amazon's injury rate is tolerated because the people getting hurt are not as valued by society.
"How many people having their backs broken is a lot of people?" he asked. "It seems to me that that question is a political and an ethical question, and I think people tend to answer it based on whether they see the people getting hurt as us or them."