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Tuesday, December 5, 2023
Dec. 5, 2023

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Trial pits Amazon against WA in warehouse worker safety showdown

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SEATTLE — Amazon and workplace safety regulators from the e-commerce giant’s home state on Monday kicked off what’s expected to be a weekslong trial that may well determine the future of work at Amazon’s warehouses.

Regulators with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries have fined Amazon four times since 2021, alleging that inspections of three of its warehouses showed workers were at a high risk of injury due to repetitive motions and, in some cases, a fast pace of work. Amazon appealed all four citations, arguing its employees worked at a comfortable pace and that the company already made changes that were bringing down injury rates.

Both parties appeared on Monday before a judge from the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals, an independent state agency responsible for hearing appeals related to workers’ compensation, safety citations and other decisions made by Labor and Industries.

L&I is asking Amazon to make changes to its warehouses that it says will reduce the risk of injury among its workforce. The department didn’t specify which changes Amazon must make but offered suggestions, including introducing new equipment and creating a formal job rotation program to help workers avoid injuries from repetitive motions.

Amazon is asking the court to dismiss the citations, arguing that it has not violated any state laws and should not be forced to make any of L&I’s proposed changes. Those changes would be “tremendously disruptive,” Amazon wrote in court documents.

The trial is focused on three of Amazon’s facilities in Washington, in DuPont, Pierce County; Kent; and Sumner. Amazon has since stopped operations at its Sumner facility, a decision that was made before the citation. Workplace regulators inspected Amazon’s DuPont facility twice, resulting in a second citation and fine.

The fines themselves amount to $81,000, a tiny figure compared with the $12.2 billion in pretax profits Amazon recorded in 2022.

Elliott Furst, an attorney representing the state, told Judge Stephen Pfeifer during opening statements that Amazon’s online marketplace “probably changed the world,” and that the company has done an “amazing job of setting up a system” where shoppers can have a product on the doorstep, with a few mouse clicks.

“But,” Furst continued, “the only reason we’re here today is because when they set up this highly efficient system they did not factor in … the safety of their workers.”

In the most recent citation, from March 2022, Labor and Industries officials said workers at Amazon’s Kent warehouse are asked to repeatedly lift, carry and twist at a dangerous pace. Ten of the 12 processes the department inspected “create a serious hazard” for back, shoulder, wrist and knee injuries.

Because the department had cited Amazon for similar violations before, L&I determined Amazon is aware of these hazards and is “knowingly putting workers at risk.”

Amazon disputes those claims and says its safety record has improved in Washington and around the country.

In statements to the court, Amazon said it was testing new engineering controls, including powered cart tuggers, electric pallet jacks and vacuum lifts. It plans to invest $550 million in safety initiatives in 2023, adding to the $1 billion it committed to safety from 2019 to 2022. The company also says it does not have fixed production quotas for workers and that employees are free to take breaks as needed.

“When all the evidence is in, the picture that’s going to emerge is going to be far different than what the department has alleged here,” Jeffrey Youmans, an attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine representing Amazon, told the court Monday.

Instead, he continued, the court will see “an employer that’s committed to safety, committed to eliminating ergonomic risk in its facilities and keeping its associates safe.”

Ergonomics broadly refers to the study of how people work, and to arranging workplaces, job tasks and equipment to be easy and safe to use. In this case, ergonomists from L&I and Amazon are studying the risk of injury from repetitive motions, like pulling items off racks or trailers. Repetitive motions in the workplace can cause musculoskeletal disorders, like strains, sprains and tears.

This is the first Washington state ergonomics case that’s been litigated in any regulatory context in nearly 30 years, Furst said Monday.

Over the next two months, Amazon and L&I will call Amazon employees and managers to testify about their experiences at the company. Members of Amazon’s workplace health and safety team whose work covers all of Amazon’s fulfillment centers will take the stand, as will several ergonomists.

In opening statements, Furst and Youmans focused on the types of tools the department used to measure the risk of injury at Amazon’s warehouses. Youmans accused L&I of using tools that don’t factor in the variability of work in Amazon’s facilities — and using those tools incorrectly.

Furst accused Amazon of trying to bypass the law by telling the department its tools weren’t fit for “the new modern type of workplace we have invented.”

State law doesn’t allow “an employer to create a uniquely unsafe workplace and then argue that it’s unfair to hold that workplace to the same standards as every other workplace,” Furst told the judge.

Youmans argued that L&I made “baseless accusations” about the pace of work at Amazon facilities. Instead, Youmans argued, Amazon only set goals for its lowest-performing employees and those goals were reasonable and easy to meet. Regulators had not accounted for all Amazon had already done to minimize risk to workers, he continued.

Maureen Lynch Vogel, an Amazon spokesperson, said in a statement Monday “we look forward to showing that L&I’s allegations are inaccurate and don’t reflect the reality of safety at Amazon.”

“The truth is that we’re always investing in safety and our efforts are working, with recordable injury rates at our sites in Kent and DuPont improving by 16% and 40% since 2018,” she said. “We’re proud of our progress and we’ll continue working to get better every day.”

The trial, which will take place in Seattle and Tacoma, is unfolding at the same time federal safety regulators from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are conducting their own inspections of Amazon warehouses around the country. The agency has issued several citations, finding Amazon failed to properly record work-related injuries, failed to provide a safe workplace and exposed workers to risk of injuries.

Amazon has appealed those citations.

Sen. Bernie Sanders announced earlier this year the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is also investigating working conditions at Amazon’s warehouses. Sanders, who campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and 2020, said the committee sent a letter to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, initiating an inquiry into the safety record at Amazon facilities and the company’s treatment of workers who are injured on the job.

Amazon spokesperson Steve Kelly said the company strongly disagrees with the assertions in the letter.

The overall injury rate at Amazon warehouses declined in the past year, according to two recent analyses of injury data.

The Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition of labor unions that has focused on working conditions at Amazon, analyzed data the company submitted to OSHA for 2022. It found the overall injury rate at Amazon had decreased — from 7.9 injuries per 100 workers in 2021 to 7.0 injuries in 2022.

Amazon released its own safety report in March, mostly using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that showed a similar decline. Amazon reported that its injury rate at U.S. facilities fell from 7.6 injuries per 200,000 working hours in 2021 to 6.7 injuries in 2022.

While Amazon touts this statistic as evidence that it has made strides on founder Jeff Bezos’ 2020 commitment to become “Earth’s safest place to work,” the Strategic Organizing Center said the data overall shows Amazon has “failed to make meaningful progress on worker safety.”

The Industrial Insurance Appeals Board trial resumes Tuesday in Seattle, and is expected to continue into September.

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