Amazon’s safety claims fail to convince critics in government amid holiday shopping rush

Inside an Amazon Prime Now delivery hub in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Amazon has consistently defended its safety record following exposés by the Center for Investigative Reporting over the past year documenting injury rates higher than previously reported at its warehouses.

That was the tone of a Nov. 1 letter, made public Tuesday, that Amazon sent to Senators Elizabeth Warren, Edward Markey, and Joseph Kennedy III. The senators contacted Amazon with a series of questions after the organization published its latest report on warehouse safety.

“At Amazon, we are known for obsessing over customers — but we also obsess about our employees and their safety,” said Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, in the letter.

But the company’s critics in government remain unconvinced.

Related: Amazon’s first $100B quarter? Jeff Bezos says signs point to ‘unprecedented’ holiday sales

“Amazon could take immediate action to address the injury rate at warehouses — allowing the work to slow down and ending productivity monitoring — yet the company seems unwilling to address the root causes of high injury rates at their warehouses, or acknowledge a link between productivity demands and injuries,” the senators said in a statement.

Amazon is under related scrutiny in the other Washington, the company’s home state. The Washington labor department said this week it will increase Amazon’s workers compensation premiums by 15% starting Jan. 1, the Seattle Times reported. Rates are typically calculated based on injuries reported in each industry group and other warehouse companies reportedly complained to the state that Amazon’s high rates were increasing premiums for the entire category. After the change, the warehouse industry will see a 20% reduction to its premiums.

The latest CIP report describes a high-pressure environment inside Amazon warehouses that leads to higher injury rates than other e-commerce businesses. Injury rates at Amazon have gone up each of the past four years, according to the report, and the spikes are more severe during peak shopping periods, like the holiday rush that is currently underway.

The senators’ questions hinged on whether high injury rates are associated with Amazon’s “performance target expectations,” which they call “a set of quotas that are simply rebranded with company-specific lingo.”

Amazon tracks performance targets to ensure that employees are completing a certain number of tasks per hour. A warehouse worker might be expected to pick 31 items off shelves per hour, according to the letter. A gift wrapper could be expected to wrap 21 items per hour.

Amazon said it surveys employees and accepts feedback on safety protocols through a variety of channels. The senators asked if Amazon surveys workers about the performance targets and their impact on safety. Amazon said that it doesn’t have a “question with this specific language, but we do ask about site leadership’s response to safety, and whether safety is prioritized at the site.”

In their statement this week, the lawmakers criticized Amazon for failing to connect performance targets to injury rates.

“Amazon’s performance expectations are setting workers up to fail — at an extraordinary human cost,” they said. “Their response to our letter, and other oversight letters this year, portray an environment rich for dangerous working conditions.”

The letter focused specifically on a warehouse in Fall River, Mass., Warren’s constituency. Amazon says its managers increased reviews of potential safety hazards at the facility during Prime Day this year and a Safety Review Board regularly audits risks. But the board hasn’t recommended decreasing target performance expectations to reduce injuries, according to the letter.

“This has not been necessary, given the target adjustments we already make,” Huseman wrote. “Safety Review Boards usually identify training or engineering controls as recommendations best suited to improve safety.”

Amazon did cite a number of safety improvements the company has made over the past year, but many of its examples pertained to the pandemic, rather than injury rates.

Amazon did not immediately respond to GeekWire’s request to comment on the developments. In the letter, Huseman reiterated that Amazon is “proud of the work we are doing today, and have always done, to ensure the safety of our employees.”

Amazon expects to break revenue records this holiday quarter and is spending heavily on hiring and delivery capacity to meet huge demand amid the pandemic. As part of its third quarter earnings report, the Seattle company said it expects revenue in the fourth quarter between $112 and $121 billion, a year-over-year increase of 28% to 38%.

To keep up with the demand, Amazon has been on a hiring spree, adding 400,000 jobs this year and an additional 100,000 in the month of October.

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