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DOJ probes Amazon for alleged knowledge of warehouse safety hazards

By Lauren Rosenblatt, The Seattle Times
Published: January 31, 2023, 5:33pm

SEATTLE — After years of scrutiny over working conditions inside Amazon’s warehouses, federal prosecutors are asking whether Amazon executives knew about safety hazards and misled others about the company’s safety record.

Attorneys with the Department of Justice’s civil division are investigating whether Amazon “engaged in a fraudulent scheme designed to hide the true number of injuries” to its workers, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. They also seek to determine if Amazon made “false representations” to lenders about its safety record to obtain credit, the attorney’s office said.

Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said the company disagrees with the allegations.

But government officials have asked the company to produce copies of communications and other documents, and to make several executives available for depositions. Information gained in the investigation, the Justice Department says, could provide “significant evidence” about the severity of ergonomic hazards at Amazon’s warehouses and “Amazon’s longstanding knowledge of those hazards,” according to court documents.

Inside Amazon’s warehouses, workers say they have to move quickly to meet high expectations the company sets for packing items and moving orders out of the warehouse and onto customers’ doorsteps. Repetitive motions, like lifting, bending and reaching, put workers at risk of musculoskeletal disorders, according to inspections from Washington’s Department of Labor in 2021.

Amazon says it does not set productivity requirements for its workers, but warehouse staff say they fear losing their job if they don’t move fast enough.

Now, government officials say recent investigations have “revealed that many of Amazon’s policies and practices are determined at the corporate level,” according to court documents.

Amazon has asked a district judge in Seattle to allow the company more time to gather the information the attorney’s office requested. Prosecutors originally asked for a Jan. 6 deadline. Amazon asked for a six-month extension.

On Monday, Judge Michelle Peterson told Amazon to produce documents on a rolling basis. Attorneys for both sides are expected to return to court in April.

Further scrutiny

The investigation is unfolding at the same time that workplace safety watchdogs in Washington and at the federal level are looking at conditions inside Amazon’s warehouses.

Regulators with the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries have cited and fined Amazon four times — for a total of $81,000 — for alleged violations of workplace safety laws. State safety officials accused the company of setting an unsafe pace that puts employees at risk as they quickly move package after package. Amazon has appealed those citations.

The national Occupational Safety and Health Administration began its inspections this summer. It opened investigations at facilities in Deltona, Florida; Waukegan, Illinois; and New Windsor, New York, in July. Then, in August, it opened investigations at facilities in Aurora, Colorado; Nampa, Idaho; and Castleton, New York.

The department has already issued some citations. It said in December that Amazon had failed to properly record work-related injuries at the six warehouses. In January, it cited the company for failing to keep workers safe at three warehouses.

Warehouse workers are at high risk for lower-back injuries and musculoskeletal disorders because of awkward postures, long reaches and long hours — among other reasons, the department found.

Amazon faces more than $60,000 in proposed penalties. The company plans to appeal the citations and says it is already working to mitigate risks.

“We take the safety and health of our employees very seriously, and we strongly disagree with these allegations and intend to appeal,” Nantel, the Amazon spokesperson, said in an emailed statement. “We know there will always be ways for us to improve even further, and we will — we’ll never stop working to be safer for our employees.”

Requested information

In the slew of ongoing investigations, OSHA and the Justice Department are asking for similar information from Amazon. Because of that, representatives from both government agencies are arguing Amazon should be able to move faster. OSHA faces a ticking clock; federal law requires OSHA to submit citations from its investigation within six months of the violation.

Following those criteria, OSHA would need to complete its investigations in February. On Monday, Judge Peterson pushed back that deadline, allowing Amazon more time to submit requested documents and OSHA more time to review that new information before closing its inspections.

Amazon is arguing the government has set an unreasonable timeline and expected pace of work for its attorneys. The company said it has produced more than 46,200 documents — totaling nearly 190,000 pages — and 22 witnesses for depositions, according to a January court filing. Amazon also said it has “mobilized” 100 attorneys and spent millions of dollars already.

In addition, Amazon said the government has set search terms that are too broad, slowing the process. One parameter was so broad it ended up searching some employees’ inboxes for weather reports and confirmation emails from United Airlines, an attorney for Amazon said at Monday’s hearing.

The government is arguing it has to move fast to protect workers clocking in at Amazon warehouses each day. The U.S. attorney’s investigation is looking into information from the six facilities OSHA is inspecting as well as more than 900 “sibling” facilities nationwide.

Despite producing hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, Amazon has still withheld between 50 percent to 70 percent of requested documents for further review, representatives for the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Department of Labor wrote in a January court filing.

The information “must be provided in a timely manner — rather than in many months — so that OSHA can take appropriate action to protect the safety of Amazon’s workers,” the representatives wrote in an earlier court document. “The critical worker safety issues at stake in this matter warrant expedited production.”

The attorney’s office has asked for documents and communications from “high-ranking” executives, including Amazon’s global medical director, the director of record-keeping, the director of workplace health and safety initiatives and audits, and the director of global workplace health and safety ergonomics.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York could not be reached for comment.

The Justice Department inquiry relies on a 1989 law that focuses on savings and loans, called the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act, or FIRREA. Amazon wrote in a December court filing it was a “stretch” to use FIRREA for this investigation.

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