Amazon joins OSHA in promising review after six people die as warehouse near St. Louis collapses in tornado

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EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. (AP) – The Federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration announced Monday it has opened an investigation into the collapse of an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Ill., After being hit by a tornado on Friday, killing six people and another hospitalized.

OSHA inspectors, who have been at the site since Saturday, will examine whether workplace safety rules have been followed and will have six months to complete the investigation, spokesman Scott Allen said.

Amazon, meanwhile, said warehouse workers had little time to prepare when the National Weather Service declared a tornado warning Friday night. The tornado arrived shortly after, collapsing on both sides of the warehouse and collapsing into its roof.

“There was a huge effort that happened that night to keep everyone safe,” said John Felton, Amazon AMZN.
Senior Vice President of Global Delivery Services, speaking alongside Illinois Governor JB Pritzker in Edwardsville on Monday and pledging to review all of the events that took place on Friday.

Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said the warehouse received tornado warnings between 8:06 p.m. and 8:16 p.m. Friday and site officials ordered workers to take shelter immediately . At 8:27 p.m., the tornado hit the building.

Felton said most of the 46 people in the warehouse known as the “delivery station” made their way to a shelter on the north side, which was found “almost unharmed”, and a smaller group towards the southern end most affected. The company said these were not separate safe rooms, but generally places away from windows that were considered safer than other parts of the plant.

The tornado was so powerful that twisted metal from Amazon’s facility littered a field near Bob Craft’s house and wrapped itself around the trees, said the Edwardsville resident, who previously could see the warehouse behind his house.

The storm pulled up nearby peach trees, knocked over a structure used for beekeeping, and rolled a shipping container.

“What caused the damage was all the debris that bulldozed through,” Craft said.

Amazon is committed to helping workers and their families affected by the tragedy, including donating $ 1 million to the Edwardsville Community Foundation. The company declined to answer questions on Monday about its emergency plans at the plant, including whether employees were required to perform drills.

“We don’t see warehousing as one of the industries that will be badly affected by climate change, but you have a case like this.”


– Beth Gutelius, Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago

John Gasper, associate professor of economics at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, warned he did not know the details of what had happened at Amazon. But he said that for companies like Amazon that have a high workforce turnover rate, it is probably more difficult to organize regular emergency training programs, especially during the busy holiday season. where there are a lot of seasonal workers.

“The cost of the time to do the exercises is also the time they don’t (move) the packages,” he said. “They need to think about these compromises. But I don’t think a company wants to hurt its employees.

The tornado that hit Amazon’s facilities was part of a tornado swarm across the Midwest and South that devastated entire communities. Another tornado destroyed the Mayfield Consumer Products candle plant in Mayfield, Ky., Killing several workers on an overnight shift.

Reports emerged on Monday that workers, alarmed by the storm forecast, had asked for permission to leave the candle factory and were told job loss was a likely consequence. The company reportedly responded to this report, initially spotlighted by NBC, saying employees have been free to come and go throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Employees have reportedly said that managers retain the power to override this attendance policy.

OSHA, which is part of the US Department of Labor, said federal investigators are not investigating the Kentucky plant collapse because the state has its own workplace safety agency.

See: Kentucky tornadoes count in the tens, but hope is emerging that the death toll at candle factories will not be as high as previously feared

The Edwardsville warehouse is part of a vast patchwork of concrete and steel structures that have emerged in the St. Louis area over the past decade, drawn by its confluence of highways and railroads major, its cheap costs and the expectations of Americans for obtaining packages. delivered shortly after clicking a link to order them.

A researcher who studies the warehouse industry and the pressure on Amazon workers to meet strict productivity quotas said that while the Amazon team did everything to respond to a devastating tornado, this begs the question of the structure of the huge warehouses popping up in the Midwest as some climate experts warn of more frequent severe storms.

“We don’t see warehousing as one of the industries that will be badly affected by climate change, but you have a case like this,” said Beth Gutelius, research director at the Center for Urban Economic Development at the ‘University of Illinois. in Chicago. “How do we make sure that the facilities are built in such a way as to best protect the workers inside?” “

Living with climate change: Was the deadly Kentucky tornado due to climate change? It is complicated.’

Gutelius said its central location and lower costs have led the warehouse industry to triple over the past decade in the greater St. Louis area, of which Edwardsville is a part, growing faster than the industry. at national scale. She said the pressure on warehouse workers and delivery men is especially high during the holiday season, especially at Amazon because of its promise of fast deliveries and its artificial intelligence technology to move goods and monitor goods. worker performance.

At the governor’s press conference on Monday, Nantel stressed that the 1.1 million square foot building was “built to code.”

But Pritzker raised the possibility that current codes may not be enough to deal with the dangers of increasingly devastating storms. He said there would be an investigation into updating the code “given the severe climate changes we are seeing across the country.”

Amazon announced in June 2016 plans to build two warehouses in Edwardsville, claiming they would create 1,000 full-time jobs. One was intended to handle large objects such as large-screen TVs and sports equipment, according to a June 2016 article in the Edwardsville Intelligencer. The other was for smaller items such as books, toys, and portable electronics.

Marc Wulfraat, a supply chain consultant who studied Amazon’s warehouses and distribution centers, says the one in Edwardsville seemed industry standard with 40-foot concrete walls, much like many ‘others appearing across the country as consumers move from stores to online shopping. .

“It was essentially a warehouse, with nothing particularly distinctive to Amazon,” said Wulfratt, president of MWPVL International, a Montreal-based consulting firm. “They follow the code when they build these buildings. There’s no getting around it. “

Robert Hartwig, a finance professor at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business, said Amazon likely has property insurance with very high deductibles, policies that tend to lead to better-designed facilities. to face storms.

“Amazon has a big incentive for mitigation, making investments that reduce or avoid losses, designing the structure to withstand a variety of perils,” said Hartwig, former chairman of the Insurance Information Institute, a business group.

Gutelius said she couldn’t help but view the tragedy as a ripple effect of American consumer demand for packages to be shipped quickly.

“Yes, it was a freak accident, but the facts still are that these workers made sure my dog ​​got a Frisbee – tomorrow – and gave their lives for it,” she said. “It sounds really ridiculous when you think about the stakes. “

MarketWatch has contributed to this.

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