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Regulators struggle to rein in Amazon on safety for warehouse workers

Packages passed through a scanner at an Amazon fulfillment center in Baltimore. The company publicly defended its safety record at a hearing on Monday in Washington state that followed more than a decade of complaints about workplace conditions across the US.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Amazon on Monday began publicly defending its safety record at a hearing in Washington state that follows more than a decade of complaints about workplace conditions across the country.

State labor regulators allege working at Amazon exposes staff to increased risk of ergonomic injury and musculoskeletal disorders as they awkwardly bend and twist to move goods through the warehouse. The company has repeatedly denied the allegations and said its injury rate is improving. Citing a lack of operational change, Washington state has twice charged the company with willfully violating safety standards, citations Amazon has appealed.

At the Monday morning hearing, Amazon called independent ergonomist Dennis Mitchell as its first expert witness, who testified that he disagreed with the state’s allegations about safety issues at the company’s warehouses.


“The tools they used were not suitable for the work conditions at Amazon,” Mitchell said.

The Washington hearing, which began earlier this summer, comes at a moment of unprecedented scrutiny into Amazon’s health and safety record. Officials with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened a national investigation into ergonomic injuries last year and have since issued more than more than a dozen citations. That effort was announced in coordination with the Attorney General for the Southern District of New York, which is looking into allegations that Amazon systematically conceals workplace injuries.

Additionally, a Senate committee chaired by Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, is investigating the rate at which Amazon workers are injured, as well as employee turnover and productivity quotas.

Combined, those efforts have brought more attention to the inner workings of Amazon’s warehouse operations. Some labor advocates — who have been focused on unionizing the e-commerce giant for several years — are hopeful these investigations will force the company to change, improving working conditions by reducing the demanding pace, and adding more tools to help.


But even though the current enforcement attempts follow years of concerns about working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses, state and federal officials continue to struggle to force any substantial changes to the way the company runs its hundreds of warehouses.

“This record of dangerous working conditions has been going on for a long time and nothing seems imminent in terms of change,” said Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “And OSHA doesn’t seem to have sufficient tools to do anything about it.”

Amazon denies allegations that it knowingly puts workers in harm’s way and that it systematically conceals injuries. Spokesperson Maureen Lynch Vogel said the “vast majority” of safety inspections at Amazon don’t result in citations.

"In the minority of cases when there is a citation, we have a right — as does any company — to challenge it and present our case," she said. "And if we do appeal a citation, it’s because we disagree with the allegations or the recommended changes aren’t appropriate for our type of operations. While we know that there will always be more to do, we’re committed to continuous improvement and the data proves we’re making significant progress on safety."

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. Interim CEO Patty Stonesifer sits on Amazon’s board.

The renewed focus by federal and state regulators on safety at Amazon has played out amid a particularly trying year for the company. Long known for explosive growth and transforming the way the world shops, in the past year Amazon laid off more than 27,000 people, shuttered departments, and killed off some of its innovative but unprofitable experiments. Multiple executives departed, and morale issues have surfaced for some staffers as the company tries to insist they return to the office — a conflict which came to a head with an employee walkout in the spring.


Workplace safety at Amazon first gained national attention in 2011, when a Pennsylvania newspaper reported that warehouse workers were passing out due to extreme heat — prompting ambulances to wait at the ready outside the building. In the years that followed, more complaints, injuries, inspections, and citations accrued at Amazon warehouses around the country.

In 2021, The Post reported that Amazon workers were seriously injured at higher rates than at other workplaces in the same industry. Amazon disputed those figures, and said its serious injury rates have since declined.