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Investigation raises alarm about handling of worker fatality at Indiana Amazon facility

Our research into never-before-public injury records from 23 Amazon warehouses across the country indicates most had injury rates higher than the industry average. One particular incident in Indiana raises questions about how regulators and government officials deal with potential safety violations at the global company. Will Evans of Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    On Wednesday, we examined safety rates at Amazon facilities using never-before-public injury records from 23 warehouses across the country, representing about 20 percent of Amazon's fulfillment centers.

    Most of those sites had higher injury rates than the industry average, from two to as much as six times higher.

    Tonight, Will Evans of Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting looks into one particular case that raises questions about how regulators and government officials deal with potential safety violations at the global company.

  • Will Evans:

    John Stallone has been a safety professional for nine years.

  • John Stallone:

    These are from all my years doing construction and in industrial safety.

  • Will Evans:

    In a way, it's the family business. His father worked as a top state government safety official.

  • John Stallone:

    I think it runs in our blood, in the fact that we want to help people when we can.

  • Will Evans:

    Two years ago, he was working for the Indiana state branch of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, when he was called to investigate an accident at an Amazon warehouse outside of Indianapolis.

  • Man:

    There's an emergency in the maintenance area — I'm sorry — at Amazon.

  • 911 Operator:

    Is he conscious and breathing?

  • Will Evans:

    Phillip Lee Terry had been doing maintenance on a forklift. A security camera captured the accident.

  • John Stallone:

    Clearly, you could see he's underneath this. There's nothing protecting him.

  • Will Evans:

    The heavy forks and metal platform suddenly fell, crushing Terry and killing him. His body lay there nearly two hours before a co-worker found him.

    Stallone realized that about five feet from where the accident took place was a safety device that should have been used.

  • John Stallone:

    The thing that was most bothersome to me was that right there is the stand. That's the jack. You would actually put this underneath the fork to make sure that they don't come down.

    Nothing was used. Why don't they know they need to block those forks, so they don't fall down?

  • Will Evans:

    Stallone concluded that Amazon failed to provide adequate training. In interviews with Terry's co-workers, Stallone's notes show one employee even said there was no training, no safety. "It's get 'er done."

  • John Stallone:

    It was shocking. I was under the assumption that they would have had a really good safety culture to begin with.

  • Will Evans:

    Amazon declined repeated requests for an interview, but sent a written statement saying it could not comment on the specifics of Terry's death due to privacy concerns.

    It would only say that: "During the inspection and follow-up discussions with Indiana OSHA, we provided Mr. Terry's training records."

    But Stallone said the training records Amazon gave him didn't relate to the forklift Terry was working on.

  • Zach Terry:

    It was devastating to all of us, because he meant so much to each and every one of us, being the patriarch of our family. Losing him was indescribable.

  • Will Evans:

    Zach Terry, Lee's son, says his father was very organized and responsible.

  • Zach Terry:

    You know, I have a lot of anger built up because of everything that's happened. But, you know, my big thing is honoring my dad's memory and who he was as a person.

  • Will Evans:

    Indiana OSHA gave Amazon four citations for serious workplace safety violations, with fines totaling $28,000.

    But the case didn't end there. Soon after, Stallone's boss held a conference call with Amazon's lawyers and discussed ways the company could reduce its fines. One strategy would be to blame the accident on employee misconduct.

  • John Stallone:

    It's very unorthodox to have someone that is in that kind of a management position. It's like being at a card table and having a dealer teach you how to count cards.

  • Will Evans:

    Right after the call, Stallone's boss, Indiana OSHA Director Julie Alexander, told him they might change his citations. Stallone secretly taped the conversation, which is legal in Indiana.

  • Julie Alexander:

    I hope you don't take it personally if we have to manipulate your citations any, or…

  • John Stallone:

    I think they should all — I mean, I think they're all pretty — I think all four of them are pretty strong on their own. But I'm just — I get paid by the hour. You do what you got to do.

  • Will Evans:

    Stallone was especially upset that she speculated on the worker's responsibility for his own death.

  • Julie Alexander:

    I'm guessing the guy was probably on drugs or something.

  • Will Evans:

    To be clear, the toxicology report shows that Phillip Lee Terry had nothing in his system, other than nicotine and caffeine.

    OSHA Director Alexander ignored repeated requests for an interview. A former Amazon safety manager, who asked not to be identified, says that Terry's death should have been a wakeup call.

  • Man:

    There's nobody checking up on a guy that's doing dangerous work under elevated forks like that. That, to me, like, there's several breakdowns there.

  • Will Evans:

    He says it's wrong to blame Terry's death on employee misconduct.

  • Man:

    There's no way that would be misconduct. If there's any misconduct there, it's putting a person that has little to no experience in working on this piece of equipment. There's your misconduct. Whoever allowed that to happen, that's the misconduct.

  • Will Evans:

    When OSHA inspector Stallone pushed for Amazon to face penalties, he says he found himself called into a meeting with state officials. Those officials deny this meeting took place.

    Can you remember what they said exactly?

  • John Stallone:

    You need to back off. You need to back off in this case. You don't need to push this. And if you feel — if you're going to, then you need to resign.

  • Will Evans:

    And they specifically brought up the fact that Amazon might bring its second headquarters to Indiana?

  • John Stallone:

    Correct.

  • Will Evans:

    State officials deny that meeting took place and declined repeated requests for an interview.

    A state Labor Department spokesperson even called the claim bizarre and fantastical. But we saw an e-mail Stallone sent to a federal government OSHA official after the meeting, sounding the alarm about political interference in the case.

    Stallone says he quit. The state says he was fired for poor performance. Documents show the Indian Labor Department dropped all penalties against Amazon. The department said Amazon provided proof that Terry was properly trained and the accident was the result of employee misconduct.

    The former Amazon safety manager feels that, even from the company's standpoint, this was the wrong outcome.

    It bothers you that those citations were deleted?

  • Man:

    It does. It bothers me a lot, because somebody lost their life.

    Fighting the citation vs. saying, hey, I'm going to acknowledge that we have a problem, and we're going to fix it, are two different things.

    It sounds to me like we took an easy path, instead of taking the difficult path.

  • Will Evans:

    Three weeks after the citations were dropped, the governor appeared in an Amazon roundtable event.

  • Man:

    But the governor said he's still working with the major online retailer, trying to land the second headquarters by answering any questions the company might still have.

  • Gov. Eric Holcomb:

    Obviously, our tax and regulatory climates are very, not just attractive, but enticing. And we want to grow together.

  • Will Evans:

    Ultimately, Indiana lost its bid for Amazon's headquarters.

    But Stallone believes the way regulators bent over backwards to help Amazon just makes accidents more likely to happen in the future.

  • John Stallone:

    You are gambling with people's lives every day. And that doesn't seem like you should get a pass. You have to hold people's feet to the fire. You have to be accountable for what they did or didn't provide.

  • Will Evans:

    This is Will Evans for Reveal and "PBS NewsHour" in Plainfield, Indiana.

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