But the government’s top workplace safety regulator stopped short of fining or formally penalizing Amazon, despite identifying several holes in the facility’s emergency procedures. The regulator said Amazon met “minimal federal safety guidelines for storm sheltering.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The tornado ripped through the Amazon warehouse in early December, tearing off the roof and collapsing several exterior walls. Six people in the south end of the building were killed.
There are no federal requirements for specially built storm shelters in warehouses. Amazon’s designated shelter area was near restrooms at the north end of the warehouse, where most of the workers stayed during the storm.
In a statement, Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said the company will carefully consider OSHA’s recommendations and that it has started holding more emergency drills at its facilities.
“The tornado that hit our delivery station was extreme and very sudden, with winds that were much like the force of a category 4 hurricane, and we believe our team did the right thing, moving people to shelter as soon as the warning was issued,” Nantel said. “Our buildings — including the Edwardsville delivery station — have emergency plans that identify exit routes and shelter areas. Employees receive emergency response training, and that training is reinforced throughout the year.”
OSHA’s letter says that managers started telling warehouse workers to shelter in the restrooms about 10 minutes before the tornado hit.
“Some employees were unaware the designated tornado shelter was the restroom located in the northern portion of the building and instead took shelter in the restroom located in the southern portion of the building,” it reads.
Amazon’s written “emergency action plan” was “not customized with specific instructions associated with the anticipated hazards expected for this facility,” the hazard letter states. It included weather events not relevant to the area in Illinois, like a hurricane. And it “did not specifically identify the location of the designated shelter area,” OSHA investigators found, although Amazon had posted facility evacuation maps with the tornado shelter location identified.
Employees told investigators they didn’t remember ever conducting severe weather or shelter-in-place drills.
When the 40-foot-roof caved in and the concrete walls came crashing down, most of the 46 employees on site were huddled in restrooms in the north part of the building. Those who where killed and injured were sheltered in restrooms in the southern section.
To reduce risk for future weather emergencies, OSHA recommended that Amazon ensure all employees, including vendors and contractors, are given training in severe weather preparedness, including drills to familiarize staff with “the layout of the facility, warning and alert methods, and severe weather shelter locations.”
“Site severe weather emergency plans should contain site specific information,” reads the letter from Aaron Priddy, the area director of the U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees OSHA. “When addressing severe weather emergency plan guidance, hazards beyond conditions involving a fire, any applicable exit route, exit door, shelter-in-place, or any other emergency plan guidance, should be identified within the written emergency plan.”
The letter also asks Amazon to make audible warning devices more readily available. Managers “verbally communicated” shelter instructions to employees during the emergency, rather than using the onsite megaphone, which was “locked in a cage and inaccessible.”
OSHA investigators arrived at the warehouse the weekend after the storm.
The family of one of the workers killed, Austin McEwen, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the e-commerce giant in January that contends Amazon should have done more to keep workers safe. At the time, Amazon said the lawsuit “misunderstands key facts,” and defended its team’s actions.
Rachel Lerman contributed to this report.