As an Amazon employee do you feel as though you lack the necessary training and information to survive a severe weather event while on the clock at Amazon?
If so, you would not be alone. Following the collapse of an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois many have begun to question the company’s workplace safety policies and whether more federal regulations on emergency preparedness should be created and strengthened. Six Amazon workers died in the collapse of the warehouse. Many of the victims were Amazon delivery drivers, who frantically pulled into the facility just before the storm hit and fled to a bathroom in the Amazon warehouse’s south side.
Amazon drivers sought safety at warehouse as tornado hit but found only death and destruction
As reported by CNBC on December 20, 2021 as Gary Quigley was ending his Amazon delivery route he noticed the winds picking up. After listening to a local radio station in Edwardsville, Illinois to watch the weather forecast due to the National Weather Service calling for a severe weather forecast and strong tornadoes within his area. At around 7:30 pm Quigley called his dispatcher, Kevin Dickey, the man in charge of overseeing the drivers at his contracted delivery company. Both of the men agreed that the weather was getting worse. Dickey told Quigley that he should head back to the Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville. After pulling into the Amazon warehouse to clock out he stayed and chatted with Dickey. “He asked me if it was getting bad out there,” Quigley recalled. “Then he told me to go ahead and get home safe and that he’d see me tomorrow.” This would be the last time Quigley would speak to Dickey. At 62 years old, Dickey was one of the six workers who died on December 10 after the Edwardsville Amazon warehouse was hit by a tornado.
The EF-3 tornado hit the ground at around 8:28 pm with wind speeds of 150 mph. Amazon’s 1.1 million-square-foot facility’s roof collapsed, while the 40 foot tall and 11-inch-thick concrete walls of the warehouse fell inward. This warehouse’s collapse led to more scrutiny of Amazon’s workplace safety measures. Also, raising questions about if regulations and building codes need to be updated. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said it began an investigation into the Amazon warehouse collapse. Local officials also investigated the tragedy, wanting “to make sure all of the code was followed in the building and to find out exactly what occurred,” Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker said in a news conference last week.
23 lawmakers wrote letters to the Amazon CEO Andy Jassy and the founder of the company Jeff Bezos wanting to gather more information into what happened at the Edwardsville Amazon warehouse and if Amazon’s “anti-worker policies that prioritize profits over worker safety” contributed to the incident. Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson, said that the company is reviewing the letter. Nantel said during a news conference last week that the building was constructed consistent with code. “We want to go back and look at every aspect of this,” Nantel continued. “There’s always going to be tremendous learnings from any type of catastrophic event like this and we want to make sure our policies, our practices are consistent with any learnings that we have from this event and with all best practices.”
While Quigley was driving home from the Amazon warehouse parking lot he waved at Craig Yost who was on his way back to the facility. Shortly after pulling into the Amazon facility, Yost and the other Amazon delivery drivers were told to take cover inside the warehouse. At 8:06 pm, the National Weather Service sent an emergency alert out for a tornado warning in the area, urging residents in the area to take shelter. After receiving this alert, Yost and several other delivery drivers rushed into the closest men’s bathroom to where their vans were parked. Yost and a coworker, Larry Virden, huddled in the bathroom and discussed how happy they were when they saw dogs on their delivery routes, said Ashley Deckard, a delivery driver who spoke to Yost following the collapse. Then, the lights began to flicker. “Then the hit came,” Deckard said. The tornado smashed through the warehouse destroying the south side of the Amazon warehouse. Larry Virden, 46, Deandre Morrow, 28, Clayton Cope, 29, and Dickey, the dispatcher, were all killed while sheltering in the bathroom. Another worker, Austin McEwen, 26, was also killed while taking shelter in the bathroom. Yost was trapped under pieces of concrete but was still conscious and managed to flag down a delivery driver to find help. “That tells me a lot about Craig,” Quigley said. “Craig’s the one laying there trapped, and he’s telling this guy to get some composure and get some help.” After laying under the concrete rubble for hours, Yost was freed by emergency responders and airlifted to Saint Louis University Hospital. Suffering serious injuries, including a fractured pelvis, a fractured hip, and a concussion, Yost underwent surgery and was released from the hospital. At another part of the warehouse, two women were trapped under debris by a bathroom at the “back” of the Amazon warehouse. After calling 911 they said a woman was close to them but she was unresponsive and looked dead. “We’re right next to her,” one woman says on the call. “We can’t get to her. Her body is bent in half.” Etheria Hebb, 34, died in the collapse according to the Edwardsville Police Department. During the same call to 911 one of the women said “As soon as we pulled in, they said park and go straight to the bathrooms, so we came into the girls’ bathroom,” the woman says. “We all got together, and the building just fell.”
An Amazon spokesperson said that the employees had been directed to the shelters in a designated assembly area after they had received tornado warnings. This shelter area was located near the front of the building by a bathroom. The tornado warnings were received at the Amazon warehouse between 8:06-8:16 pm. By 8:27 pm the tornado had struck the warehouse, the spokesperson said. Adding that, this tornado likely had formed in the facility’s parking lot, moved through the site and then disappeared. John Felton, Amazon’s senior vice president of global delivery services, said at a news conference that there is no indication that any safety procedures were incorrectly followed. “There were megaphones, there were alerts corresponding with drivers that were coming back,” Felton said. “There was a tremendous effort that happened that night to keep everybody safe.”
All of the victims were contracted delivery employees for Amazon, besides for Cope who was a mechanic at the warehouse. Amazon’s in house delivery operations are a critical piece of the logistics and fulfillment machine, allowing Amazon to shuttle packages to customers’ doorsteps at faster speeds. Last year Amazon had more than 82,000 drivers and 1,000 delivery firms in its delivery service partner program in the US. While the workers often wear Amazon uniforms and drive Amazon-branded vans, they are technically employees of the third-party delivery firms they work for. This arrangement, which has grown exponentially within Amazon, has faced criticism for the lack of safety protocols in the past. Some workers that were still out on the day of the tornado were told to pull their vehicle over into a designated area or to just drive home, said a dispatcher for Boxify Logistics at the Edwardsville warehouse.
This incident has been added to the questioning behind Amazon’s workplace safety policies, having focused more throughout the COVID pandemic. Some Amazon workers were discussing what they believed to be inadequate safety protocols for severe weather events in Reddit groups. Two Amazon employees said they feel like Amazon needs to adopt stronger safety measures to protect workers in the case of a severe weather event. The Amazon workers said there are inadequate shelter areas and a lack of tornado drills. One Amazon warehouse worker in another Edwardsville facility, Jameisha Ross, said that her warehouse has a “severe weather assembly area,” designated by a sign hanging from the ceiling, that is “surrounded by very heavy bulk items.” “Many employees are just now realizing where it is, and that they’ll be surrounded by some of the largest and heaviest items our building carries,” Ross said. “Nothing like 100 treadmills or fridges coming down on you while sheltering in place.” Across the highway from the destroyed warehouse stands STL4 which one employee has said that they have “never once” had a severe weather drill or received information on where to go in case of an emergency. Another employee said that their partner was at work the night of the tornado and that it had been “extremely chaotic” in the warehouse when the tornado hit because “nobody knew exactly where to go.” The employees inside STL4 were told to shelter in a crowded bathroom, the worker said. An Amazon spokesperson did not respond to questions about why some of the warehouse’s assembly areas had heavy items surrounding them. But, this spokesperson did say that new employees undergo emergency response training and that training is reinforced throughout the year. Each facility has its own emergency action plan that identities the exit routes and shelter areas, they said.
OSHA guidelines state that storm cellars, basements, or small interior rooms provide for the best protection from a tornado. But the federal government does not require specifically built storm shelters inside of warehouses. OSHA advises all employers to make sure all workers know what to do in case of an emergency and routinely practice shelter-in-place plans. Drivers should also know what to do if they are outdoors when a tornado is threatening.
Ross said that this incident has underscored her existing concerns about how Amazon treats their warehouse employees and that she is planning to quit her job at the company. “They do not care about us or our families,” Ross said. Several Amazon facilities and delivery companies have held or plan to have vigils to honor and remember the victims. Deckard said that she is grateful to Dickey for staying at the warehouse to make sure all of her coworkers were accounted for. “I know he was probably calling the drivers that night, making sure they were safe before thinking about himself, because that’s truly how much he cared about others,” Deckard said. Many employees at surrounding warehouses have returned to work and Amazon has called for mandatory overtime at at least one facility. “I’m scheduled to go to work,” Quigley said. “It’s just hard. I think to myself, if I had done something a little bit differently, I might have been in there.”
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