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Sunday, February 25, 2024
Feb. 25, 2024

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Inside Amazon warehouses, workers worry about risk of unsafe chemicals


At 4 a.m. in a sprawling Amazon warehouse south of Tacoma, Ellie Zingg noticed a jug of mold remover was leaking.

While sitting in the warehouse, awaiting Amazon associates who would unpack and send the product back out of the facility, chemicals in the mold remover were eating through a plastic container. Zingg, who had less than an hour left in her shift at the DuPont facility, removed the leaking products and alerted her colleagues of the spill, expecting a manager or someone trained to handle hazardous materials to sweep in for the cleanup.

Instead, Zingg’s manager gave her the job. “I told them I’m not trained for this,” she said in a recent interview. “They said ‘You put on this suit, you put on these gloves and then you clean it up.’”

Zingg notified Amazon management shortly after the 2021 incident and ultimately filed a formal complaint with Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries. This is “another example of me being made to feel that I’m wrong when I’m confident that I’m doing my job correctly,” Zingg wrote in the complaint, obtained by The Seattle Times through a public records request.

Because almost a year had passed, L&I didn’t investigate, Zingg said.

Warehouse workers at some of Amazon’s facilities have to handle potentially hazardous materials every day — and Zingg is not alone in feeling unsafe. In January, L&I inspectors cited Amazon’s Spokane warehouse for failing to properly train workers on how to handle hazardous chemicals or ensure employees wore appropriate eye protection, according to a previously unpublicized citation.

The Times obtained records of the citation and L&I’s inspection of that Spokane warehouse, GEG1, as well as a copy of Zingg’s initial complaint and six additional complaints regarding hazardous chemicals at Amazon facilities in the company’s home state through a public records request.

Amazon disputes the claims, maintaining that all front-line employees receive safety training that includes information on chemicals and how to read labels. Only trained employees clean up chemical spills, said Amazon, which has appealed L&I’s citation.

“There’s nothing more important than our employees’ health and safety,” Amazon spokesperson Maureen Lynch Vogel said. “The fact is, we have protocols and procedures in place to reduce risks associated with hazardous materials, and our employees receive annual training on how to identify and properly handle chemicals and similar products.”

Vogel said only employees with specialized, comprehensive training should be cleaning up hazardous materials spills.

The chemicals in Amazon’s warehouses, mostly consumer goods that customers order on Amazon.com, include pesticides, cleaning products and even some shampoos. Those items can leak through their packaging, exposing employees to potent odors that cause dizziness, nausea, skin irritation and, in some cases, vision loss, L&I reported.

Inspecting the Spokane warehouse last year, L&I found some Amazon employees did not wear eye protection while handling packages that could leak. In winter, frozen items were also prone to explode, the department found in interviews with six employees.

Workers who handled hazardous chemicals were not effectively trained on how to identify the materials they were handling or the risks they posed, L&I alleged. One worker told the department they determined if a chemical was hazardous based on the “glare or shimmer” of the container. Another said they went by smell; if they got nauseous, they assumed it was hazardous.

In DuPont, Zingg attended a class on hazardous-materials handling when Amazon was preparing to open the facility, but the “training is simply not sufficient,” she said.

Even if she had known what steps to take after noticing the leak, Zingg said she wouldn’t have had time to take them, more worried about continuing to push products through Amazon’s fulfillment network than stopping to look at what she was moving.

A slow leak in DuPont

Because so many different types of goods flow through Amazon’s warehouses, the company has designated sites for flammable, oxidizer and corrosive products.

A spokesperson for Amazon declined to share how many of the company’s warehouses are designated for hazardous materials. Zingg said she learned on her first day of work that Amazon’s BFI9 warehouse in DuPont was one of those facilities. Amazon confirmed BFI9 is a designated site to hold those types of materials.

Inside, Zingg said, leaking products were often stacked on top of one another or “lumped in with perfectly fine items.” Sometimes, leaks would seep slowly through piles of products for extended periods without being dealt with.

After she filed an internal complaint about the leaking mold remover, Zingg said she was harassed by her managers and peers, who accused her of bringing extra scrutiny to the team. Zingg transferred to another facility shortly thereafter, where she led an unsuccessful one-person charge to unionize her co-workers in hopes of higher pay and more breaks.

Vogel, the Amazon spokesperson, said the situation Zingg described “is not in line with our policy,” which states only trained employees should be cleaning spills.

“We take quality control very seriously, so products are inspected multiple times throughout the fulfillment process to ensure nothing is damaged or at risk of presenting a hazard to employees or customers,” Vogel continued.

Daily spills, little training

At Amazon’s GEG1 warehouse in Spokane, workers also find themselves handling consumer goods that could be hazardous, according to L&I. There, workers are expected to identify leaking products before they get too far into the warehouse. But some still end up moving through the 2.6-million-square foot warehouse.

Leaking products — like vinegar, lawn care concentrate and cleaners with bleach — can splash as they move down a conveyor belt or spill at employee workstations.

In July 2022, L&I opened an inspection into GEG1 after receiving a complaint from a former employee alleging a jug of pesticide leaked at their workstation. According to the complaint, the employee cleaned up the spill — having to switch out their latex gloves after one pair was soaked through.

The employee felt itchy about 30 minutes later. They went to the wellness center on the first floor of Amazon’s warehouse and were given a clean shirt and antihistamines, according to the complaint.

“Amazon associates handle, stow, bag and move a wide array of chemicals ranging from household cleaners to pesticides,” L&I wrote in its citation. Because Amazon did not ensure employees had the right training, workers “may be unaware of the hazards of the material and proper PPE to use while working with chemicals,” L&I alleged.

L&I initially found Amazon’s Spokane warehouse didn’t have enough eyewash stations to protect employees if they did get a chemical in their eyes. Some employees had to walk a quarter of a mile to reach a station, L&I found, and one eyewash station was behind a locked door, the department alleged. Amazon added three more eyewash stations during the course of L&I’s inspection, which involved a six-day site visit.

Once an associate identifies a leaking item, they are supposed to notify a “problem solver,” employees who are trained on working with hazardous materials and handling other tricky situations, according to L&I’s report. That happens often. One problem solver told the department they spent about 50% of their time dealing with leaking chemicals.

Of the 12 employees L&I identified in its notes from the inspection, five were problem solvers.

In general, the problem solver will scan the leaking material and Amazon’s system will show whether the material is allowed in the facility and whether it is hazardous. At the Spokane warehouse, Amazon considers lithium-ion batteries, compressed gases and flammables to be hazardous, according to L&I.

But, Amazon employees told L&I, it wasn’t always that simple. Amazon’s system doesn’t always pick up each item in a tote. Without Amazon’s virtual system sending employees signals, most interviewed by L&I didn’t know how to determine which packages were hazardous.

L&I asked six employees who had not received additional training if they had handled hazardous materials. Four said they cleaned up spilled products at their workstation and one said they had bagged leaking products to prevent the leak from spreading. One employee told L&I they identify liquid spills on the floor five to 10 times each day.

Speed, not safety, was often the key consideration, L&I inspectors found.

One employee said they didn’t review safety forms because their main focus was putting on gloves and bagging leaking items, rather than stopping to search the system. Another said “they work fast and that they do not pay attention to every little detail,” according to the report.

A safety “disconnect”

Following its inspection, L&I fined Amazon $8,100 for failing to ensure employees wear eye protection and not providing effective training for how to handle hazardous chemicals.

That number is small compared to another citation L&I issued Amazon for the same warehouse months later. In July, L&I fined Amazon $85,800 for failing to provide employees at GEG1 with a safe work environment and knowingly putting workers at risk of injury. The department said Amazon required employees there to work at such a fast pace that it put them at heightened risk for work-related musculoskeletal disorders, or strains, sprains and tears that are often caused by repetitive motions.

Those allegations followed similar citations L&I has filed against Amazon at other facilities in the state. The department has repeatedly accused Amazon of putting workers at risk of injury and is currently in the midst of a six-month trial with the company over four citations that total $81,000. L&I has suggested Amazon introduce new equipment, slow down the pace of work and rotate employees among different tasks in order to reduce the risk of injury.

Amazon, which has appealed all of those citations, argues L&I doesn’t understand how its warehouses work. The proposed changes would be “tremendously disruptive,” lawyers for Amazon argued in court documents. Furthermore, Amazon’s lawyers and spokespeople have argued several times, the company is already investing in new equipment, training and procedures at its facilities and, it says, the rate of injury is going down.

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In the past, the company has faced fines related to handling hazardous chemicals. The Federal Aviation Administration accused Amazon of putting flammable items on airplanes, including a leaky parcel of flammable hair tonic, and the U.S. Office of Hazardous Materials Safety found unmarked packages leaked in some Amazon warehouses, according to reporting from CNBC.

When it came to employees handling hazardous chemicals, L&I inspectors determined managers at the Spokane warehouse were “committed to providing a safe and healthy working environment,” according to notes from the citation, though the department found gaps in doing so.

Amazon did have a safety committee in place but “there appears to be a disconnect between management and employees” on how safety and health policies are communicated and applied, L&I said.

Similarly, Amazon has computer-based and on-the-job training regarding hazardous chemicals and personal protective equipment but, L&I determined, “the training does not appear to be effective in practice.”

Zingg said she spent most of her two years at Amazon thinking she could help fix the problems there. If communication improved, if training got better, if someone on the operations side of things knew what was going on inside the warehouses, “then it wouldn’t happen to me, it wouldn’t have to happen to anyone else,” she said.

She later lost that hope and left the company in September. “Amazon is a toxic workplace,” she said. “It provides people opportunity but at the very high cost of people’s mental health and safety.”