Amazon’s local warehouse workers suffer serious injuries more often than employees at other warehouses here, fueling criticism from labor groups as the retail giant rapidly expands across the Philadelphia region.
With the pandemic pushing consumers to shop online, Amazon has snatched up facilities and last year posted thousands of job openings locally, by far the most of any employer. But injury records suggest the jobs can be more dangerous than comparable warehouses. Critics contend the company pressures employees to work at a fast pace without enough breaks.
From 2017 through 2020, Amazon warehouses in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware reported higher rates of injuries that caused employees to miss work or do light-duty tasks, according to an Inquirer analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) data compiled by the Washington Post. In some counties, such as Bucks, Philadelphia, and New Castle, Del., Amazon’s serious injury rates were more than double those at warehouses run by other companies.
Among the three states, Amazon’s injury rates were the highest in Pennsylvania. Last year, Amazon warehouses in the state reported 7.2 serious incidents for every 200,000 hours worked -- the equivalent of 100 employees working full time for a year. By comparison, non-Amazon warehouses in Pennsylvania had a serious injury rate of 3.9 per 100 full-time worker equivalents.
The injury data were provided by the Post, which recently reported that Amazon’s serious injury rates exceeded other firms in the United States. Last year, the company’s 5.9 serious incidents per 100 full-time workers were nearly double the rate of non-Amazon warehouses, the Post found.
The OSHA data add to mounting scrutiny of Amazon’s facilities, from investigative reports showing increasing injury rates to safety violations reported by a Washington state agency. Teamsters union officials have cited the injuries in announcing plans to try to unionize the company’s warehouses.
The Inquirer analyzed injury report data from 867 warehouses across Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, including 60 Amazon facilities. While the data are a good snapshot of serious injuries during the four-year period, they do not include all warehouses in those states.
The data do not detail what caused the injuries. About 40% of work-related injuries at Amazon are related to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) that can be caused by repetitive motions, former CEO Jeff Bezos told shareholders in April. MSDs include sprains, strains, back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and hernias, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The warehouse jobs can require “nonstop” lifting, twisting, and turning, Amazon workers told The Inquirer. Warehouses are always dangerous and have higher injury rates than many other workplaces, experts said. But Amazon makes matters worse by monitoring workers’ productivity, pressuring staffers to maintain a fast pace without enough recovery time, critics contend. Amazon measures employees’ “time off task,” or the time spent away from workstations where employees scan, sort, and stow packages.
“That constant surveillance and monitoring and discipline, which means they can’t adjust when their bodies start hurting, is actually a big factor in causing these high rates of injuries,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA chief of staff. She now directs the worker health and safety program at the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group.
In the letter to shareholders, Bezos said that the company doesn’t set unreasonable performance goals and that employees are able to take informal breaks to stretch and use the restroom, in addition to 30-minute breaks. But he acknowledged the company must do better for workers and pledged to make Amazon “Earth’s safest place to work.” He said the company now employs 6,200 safety professionals and will invest $300 million this year into safety projects.
“These types of injuries are unfortunately common across the industry,” Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said in a statement. She cited a survey of 2,000 workers that found younger people were more likely to claim that their work had contributed to their MSD. “Because Amazon has added thousands of new jobs, and many of our new employees are in the 18-24 age range and doing this work for the first time, the data is skewed,” she said.
Amazon’s serious injury rate in Pennsylvania did increase slightly in 2020, when the company went on a huge hiring spree during the pandemic. But the serious injury rates actually declined in New Jersey (3.2) and Delaware (4.4) last year, The Inquirer found. Amazon’s serious incident rates were still higher than other firms in those states.
Walmart, one of Amazon’s top retail rivals, reported 3.4 serious incidents per 100 full-time workers across the three states. That was below Amazon’s three-state injury rate of 4.9. Logistics rivals UPS (3.1) and FedEx (2.3) also had lower serious injury rates than Amazon.
Wilberte Moise, a North Philadelphia resident, said she was one of the fastest package scanners at Amazon’s King of Prussia facility. During a shift in 2018, she was supposed to lift an 80-pound package and told her boss the box was too heavy, she said. The manager replied: “You have to find a way to move it and put it where it belongs.”
“When I picked up the box, it was so heavy that I tripped over and then landed right on my knees on the floor,” said Moise, 28. “Instantly, my knee started swelling up.”
Moise was diagnosed with a torn lateral meniscus in her left knee, according to medical records she provided. Moise, who now works as a security guard for a different company, said she went on leave for about three months because of the injury, which still bothers her.
Amazon added half a million workers in 2020 as its sales skyrocketed 38% year-over-year, to $386.1 billion. In the Philadelphia region, the ecommerce giant posted more than 35,000 job openings, a 1,600% increase from 2019, according to the University City District. The next-closest employers in the region posted about 5,000 jobs. Amazon had nearly 60 facilities online or underway in the region as of April.
Amazon has at least seven smaller facilities in Philadelphia and much larger facilities in West Deptford, Carneys Point, Reading, and Wilmington, among others.
As of 2020, Amazon has created 25,000 full- and part-time jobs in Pennsylvania, 49,000 in New Jersey, and 4,500 in Delaware, according to the company’s website. The company, which set its minimum wage of $15 an hour in 2018, recently raised wages between 50 cents and $3 an hour for 500,000 U.S. workers.
Labor unions argue Amazon has prioritized its explosive growth over safety. The Strategic Organizing Center (SOC), a coalition of four major unions, conducted its own analysis of OSHA data and found Amazon’s injury rates were higher in facilities that use robots and automation. The findings suggest Amazon’s use of automation can drive employees to work faster instead of making their jobs easier, the group said.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, one of the SOC members, voted last month to prioritize getting Amazon workers a union contract. Amazon recently defeated a high-stakes battle to organize a warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., where workers rejected unionization by a wide margin.
Teamsters Local 623 in Philadelphia, which represents roughly 5,000 UPS and Greyhound workers, is looking for Amazon employees to potentially organize, said Richard Hooker Jr., who leads the century-old local. He said workers and their families would benefit from a union contract that included safety provisions. The local will rely on its UPS members, who “do the exact same work” as Amazon employees, to help the organizing effort, he added.
“This is very, very important, that we tackle this behemoth,” Hooker said. “It’s already out of control, but we have to help those workers out.”
Moise, the former Amazon worker, said the higher injury rates can be blamed on Amazon not caring enough about employees. She cited another personal example: Her fiance, Josh Smith, said he tore his left rotator cuff in 2019 when lifting a box full of dog food or kitty litter. The 27-year-old from North Philadelphia said he still hasn’t received workers’ compensation and has hired a lawyer.
A silver lining of the situation, the couple said, is they met at Amazon’s King of Prussia facility.
“When he was going through his injuries and everything, he didn’t know what to do,” Moise said. “I was the one there helping him.”
Methodology: The Inquirer used work-related injury data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as compiled by the Washington Post to calculate the rate of serious injury incidents at local warehouses, operated by both Amazon and non-Amazon companies.
All facilities are classified as “General warehousing and storage” by the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS). As such, the warehouses in this analysis do not represent all local warehouse facilities.
The Post describes the serious incident rate as “the sum of cases that led to days missed or duty transfers, dividing that figure by total hours worked by employees at that facility, and multiplying that sum by 200,000 hours (the amount 100 full-time employees would work each year).The formula, used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is as follows: (Number of serious injuries / Employee hours worked) x 200,000 hours = Incident rate”
The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.