OSHA finds Amazon didn’t violate federal rules in light of the Edwardsville warehouse collapse
Amazon won’t face any penalties or be forced to change its severe weather response policies following a federal investigation into the deaths of six workers when a tornado hit a warehouse in Edwardsville nearly five months ago.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been investigating since the tornado hit on Dec. 10 at the online retailer’s 1.1-million-square-foot facility on Gateway Commerce Drive near the intersection of Interstate 255 and Interstate 270. OSHA investigated whether Amazon followed workplace safety standards and released their findings Tuesday.
Some employees couldn’t recall going through severe weather drills and there wasn’t an audible warning system available to alert workers about the threat, the federal investigation showed. This caused confusion among workers, some of whom were contractors and not Amazon employees, on how to react before the tornado hit at about 8:27 p.m.
Amazon employees and contracted employees who worked in the facility daily had participated in drills, according to OSHA spokesperson Rhonda Burke. It wasn’t clear if those workers who couldn’t recall the drills had actually gone through them at some point.
OSHA didn’t issue any fines or citations to Amazon because they met “minimal federal safety guidelines for storm sheltering,” according to the agency. They recommended Amazon review its policies, but there was no enforcement mechanism to force the company to change.
The investigation did not examine the warehouse’s construction or whether it was built to code. The EF-3 tornado with winds up to 150 mph caused the concrete walls and roof to collapse. The facility had no storm shelters built to withstand a tornado of that strength, but they’re not required by any local, state or federal policy.
The six workers who died and others who were trapped or injured were all in a bathroom on the south side of the building, and everyone else sheltered in a restroom on the north side, according to OSHA area Director Aaron Priddy in Fairview Heights. Though the north bathroom was designated as an emergency gathering area, it was not reinforced to hold up against an EF-3 tornado.
OSHA officials in a news conference Tuesday said they don’t know what would have happened if the tornado had hit the north side of the building.
At around 8 p.m., OSHA officials said Amazon employees began notifying drivers out in the field to return to the warehouse or seek shelter. Six minutes later, managers began telling workers inside the facility to shelter. At 8:18 p.m., Edwardsville’s tornado sirens began sounding.
OSHA officials did not address reports about a text message conversation between a delivery driver and her boss that night. Bloomberg News reported the boss said the driver could be fired for not completing her deliveries if she returned to the warehouse.
Amazon characterized the tornado as “extreme and very sudden,” according to a statement from a company spokesperson. They believe their team “did the right thing, moving people to shelter as soon as the warning was issued.”
“OSHA’s investigation did not find any violations or causes for citations, but we’re constantly looking to innovate and improve our safety measures and have already begun conducting additional safety and emergency preparedness drills at our sites,” spokesperson Kelly Nantel said, “and will carefully consider any OSHA recommendation that we have not already.”
Amazon could improve on three things, OSHA found in its review. They sent a “hazard alert letter” to Amazon outlining recommendations:
- A megaphone that was supposed to be used to tell employees to shelter was “locked in a cage and not accessible.” Managers instead had to spread instructions to “take shelter in the restroom” by word of mouth. They should have warning devices clearly marked and readily accessible.
- Some employees couldn’t remember where to go in severe weather and they couldn’t recall participating in any drills. Because of this, there was confusion about which bathroom they needed to shelter in — either the one on the north side of the building or the one on the south.
- Amazon’s emergency action plan has a section that addresses severe weather, but it wasn’t customized for Edwardsville. It addressed weather that wouldn’t happen in Edwardsville, such as a hurricane. Nor did the plan “specifically identify the location of the designated shelter area for the facility,” though Amazon had posted evacuation maps “which indicated the location” of the shelter.
While OSHA can’t force Amazon to adapt its plans, an agency official said the deaths should remind companies they need a plan to keep workers safe. OSHA outlines severe weather recommendations on its website, but they’re not mandatory.
“It’s important that this event be a wake-up call to employers across the country as severe weather patterns become more frequent,” said Doug Parker, OSHA’s assistant secretary of labor. “We are calling on Amazon to be an industry leader for workplace safety.”
Amazon and the companies that oversaw the construction of the warehouse face three civil lawsuits related to the deaths.
Five of the workers who died and one who was injured were contractors for other companies. Two who died worked for AB&C D.A.D Inc. of Belleville, one who died worked for Boxify Logistics of St. Louis, and two who died and the one who was injured worked for XSeed Delivery of Bolingbrook. OSHA also sent letters to those companies “encouraging them to review severe weather procedures for their drivers.”
Alexis Morris of Boxify Logistics of St. Louis on Tuesday declined to comment on OSHA’s letter and added that she had not received it. Morris also declined to give her title or position with the company.
Representatives of XSeed Delivery of Bolingbrook, Illinois, and AB&C D.A.D. Inc. of Belleville could not be reached for comment.
The sixth person who died was an in-house contractor working for CBRE of Seattle and who was assigned to the Edwardsville facility.
Illinois lawmakers have explored whether changing building codes for warehouses is the answer to preventing future tragedies. A bill to create a task force to study the issue stalled in the House in early April.
Kelsey Landis and Mike Koziatek are reporters with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.