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Amazon doesn’t report its warehouse injury rates — but we have an inside look

Black Friday kicks off peak shopping season for Amazon. This year, the company is offering its Prime members even faster service: instead of two-day shipping, some packages will arrive at customers’ doors in only one. But many Amazon staffers say the focus on speed puts warehouse workers at great risk of injury. Will Evans of Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has the story.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Black Friday, two days away, kicks off the peak of shopping season, and especially for Amazon.

    This year, the company is offering to deliver some packages to its Prime members in one day. In fact, the retail giant announced that it will hire 200,000 people for the holiday shopping season, double the number of workers it hired a year ago.

    But many Amazon staffers say the demand for greater speed is the leading factor harming warehouse workers. Like many other companies, Amazon doesn't make its workplace injury rates public.

    But Search Will Evans of Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting was able to compile injury records from Amazon work sites across the country for the first time, and has some sobering findings.

  • Will Evans:

    It's the beginning of peak shopping season at Amazon. In a company video, this is how one manager revs up his workers.

  • Man:

    One, two, three!

  • Will Evans:

    Amazon is gearing up for a huge spike in shipping. Last year, the online retailer says it sold 180 million items in the five days from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday.

    The company boasts of the speed, which is the cornerstone of its business model.

  • Narrator:

    Have you ever wondered how Amazon gets your packages to you so quickly? The SLAM machine weighs, scans your box, and attaches a label all in like one second.

  • Will Evans:

    Candice Dixon has experienced this push for speed firsthand, working at an Amazon fulfillment warehouse in Southern California.

  • Candice Dixon:

    I have worked physical jobs. And it seemed OK at the very beginning.

  • Will Evans:

    Dixon worked as a stower, loading hundreds of products into storage bins, with a computer tracking her pace per package down to the second.

  • Candice Dixon:

    It should take 11 seconds or less, if you can. But 11 seconds was the goal.

  • Will Evans:

    Is that hard to meet?

  • Candice Dixon:

    Yes.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Will Evans:

    If staffers don't meet their quota, they can get written up and fired. Dixon had to hit her rate no matter what package came her way.

  • Candice Dixon:

    I had a whole shift of all heavy items. That's what happened. I got injured. I pulled my back out.

  • Will Evans:

    Her doctor told her to limit heavy lifting, but she says Amazon sent her back to work, still dealing with heavy boxes, and her injury got worse. She's now out of work. She received a worker's comp settlement, but that money is running out.

  • Candice Dixon:

    Doing dishes hurts. Preparing my food hurts. And so I don't even know how I'm going to survive financially. Am I going to have a home in a couple months if I don't have an income? Probably not. So I don't know what to do.

  • Will Evans:

    Amazon refused to let us film inside any of its warehouses, but in online videos, the nation's second largest private employer touts its culture of safety.

  • Woman:

    Safety is always the number one priority.

  • Marla Corson:

    We want it to be the most safety-centric organization in the world.

  • Will Evans:

    Amazon, which is not unionized, closely guards records of serious injuries like Dixon's. But federal regulations say the company must provide workers with the injury logs from their work sites.

    So, with the help of Amazon employees around the country, we were able to obtain official injury records from 23 warehouses across 14 states, representing about 20 percent of Amazon's fulfillment centers.

    At these warehouses, we found that, last year, workers got seriously injured at more than double the industry average. In some facilities, it's four or even six times that average. Serious injuries are those for which workers need to take time off or be restricted from certain tasks.

    Amazon declined to be interviewed, but in an e-mail stated the rates are high because it diligently reports injuries, saying: "Amazon encourages the reporting of every incident, regardless of how small."

    It also said that rates of lost work time are high because Amazon takes an abundance of caution in not placing employees back at work before they are ready.

    We showed our findings to a former Amazon safety manager, who asked us to hide his identity. He said last year's injury rates at Dixon's warehouse were much higher than they should be.

  • Man:

    Four hundred and twenty-two reportable injuries. That's a significant amount of injuries. That shouldn't be happening.

  • Will Evans:

    Overall, the injuries we found ranged from lacerations to concussions. Most were labeled strains and sprains.

    About a third of the injured workers had to take off more than a month to recover.

  • Man:

    We have looked at how we can get packages to the customer in a day. But we haven't figured out how we can get packages to the customer in a day without hurting people.

  • Will Evans:

    He says the high injury rates are linked to the extreme production quotas that Amazon workers must hit every shift.

    Are they just going too fast?

  • Man:

    I think that's where it lands. It doesn't afford for what the toll on the body is. People might be making those numbers, but what are they sacrificing to make that number?

  • Christina Van Vorce:

    This is the shirts that they gave everybody.

  • Will Evans:

    Christina Van Vorce worked at the same warehouse as Dixon.

  • Christina Van Vorce:

    And then this is the million unit club.

  • Will Evans:

    And that means you ship out a million units in a day?

  • Christina Van Vorce:

    Yes.

  • Will Evans:

    She saw the overwhelming pressure to get packages out the door as fast as possible, especially during peak shopping season.

  • Christina Van Vorce:

    It's intense. It's very, very intense. Think of Santa's workshop. From the time you punch in to the time you punch out, you're, like, going a million miles a minute.

  • Will Evans:

    In early January, Van Vorce was working the night shift, when she and her co-workers smelled gas. Her manager told her to keep working, but she felt she had to call 9/11.

  • Christina Van Vorce:

    Hi. I'm calling from Amazon building. I'm one of the associates here. And I believe that there is a gas leak here. There was two associates that I know for sure that were vomiting. One girl almost completely passed out.

  • Will Evans:

    She says management wouldn't stop operations, for fear of not meeting their quotas.

  • Christina Van Vorce:

    I have already said something to them several times, like, everyone's sick and you're not letting people go.

    Like, they're trying to tell us, you have to use our personal time if we want to leave.

  • 911 Operator:

    OK.

  • Christina Van Vorce:

    They're worried about getting fired or losing their hours or losing their pay. And that's not something that they should be worried about when there's a gas leak. You should be worried about your life.

  • Will Evans:

    Workers who left their shift that day were docked for personal time, though Amazon eventually reversed that after workers complained.

  • Christina Van Vorce:

    When they sit there and say that all they care about is the safety of their employees, well, obviously not, because, if they cared about the safety — if safety was first, then everybody would have been evacuated from that building. And they weren't.

  • Will Evans:

    In its statement, Amazon refuted this, saying: "Within minutes of being alerted to the smell of gas, all associates in the immediately affected area were removed. The site shut down for about one-and-a-half-hours. Associates are to remain on site, so we can resume operations once the situation is resolved."

    But Van Vorce and three other workers told us there was no site-wide shut down. Amazon says it is doing what it can to make warehouses safer for workers, like by adding more robots to the warehouse floors.

  • Woman:

    We're constantly striving to be a leader. There's many things that we have actually changed in our operations through the use of technology that actually helps speed things up. And, at the same time, it makes it safer for our associates to do.

  • Will Evans:

    But, in fact, we found that, in our data, many of the highest injury rates were from warehouses with robots. The former Amazon safety manager saw this firsthand.

  • Man:

    If you go to the Amazon robotics sortable buildings, you're basically going into the lion's den. There's more automation. There's more places for me to interact with a process where I can get hurt.

  • Will Evans:

    And it's faster?

  • Man:

    It is. It's faster. The pace in that building is blistering.

  • Will Evans:

    He says robots increase the pace, to the point where humans just can't keep up.

    Have the robots basically pushed humans past their limits?

  • Man:

    I think you're seeing that nexus where we're like, man, humans are tapping out.

  • Will Evans:

    He hopes that Amazon workers will not pay the price for even speedier deliveries this holiday shopping season.

  • Man:

    You know, when you order something from Amazon, and you have worked inside Amazon, you wonder, like, hey is it going to cause some sort of significant injury or illness or something like that?

    If I order one-click ship, what's the effect that it's going to have on somebody's life?

  • Will Evans:

    This is Will Evans for Reveal and "PBS NewsHour" in Eastvale, California.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    On Friday, in the second of our series, Will investigates a death at an Amazon fulfillment warehouse that raises questions about how government officials deal with potential safety violations at the global company.

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