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Leaked documents show how Amazon misled the public about warehouse safety issues

Editor's Note: The final graphic on injury rates in this story was changed from an earlier version. The new graphic is identical to one that appears earlier in the story.

During the pandemic, Americans have become even more reliant on online shopping -- a realm Amazon continues to dominate. But the company’s vast inventory, fast shipping and low prices come with a dangerous tradeoff: an increased risk to workers rushing to fulfill orders. Will Evans of the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal has an update on injury patterns at Amazon’s busy warehouses.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the pandemic persists, online shopping is increasingly an essential part of life.

    Today is Prime Day, when Amazon is offering savings on thousands of items. But they come with a cost, an increased risk to Amazon workers rushing to fill orders.

    Last year, we brought you a special report by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting about injury rates at Amazon fulfillment centers across the U.S.

    Reporter Will Evans has stayed on the story, and he's obtained a trove of confidential company records that shed new light on injury patterns at these busy warehouses.

  • Will Evans:

    Last November, Reveal and the "PBS NewsHour" published an investigation about workplace safety at Amazon fulfillment centers across the country.

    We found workers exposed to a gas leak in a Southern California warehouse, and a man crushed to death by a forklift in Indiana. That reporting led to sources giving Reveal a trove of documents never before made public, four years of weekly injury numbers for more than 150 Amazon fulfillment centers nationwide, along with hundreds of pages of Amazon's internal safety memos.

    These documents give an unprecedented look into how many workers have been injured and how Amazon is responding. According to Amazon's own records, last year it had more than 14,000 serious injuries, meaning the injury prevented the worker from doing their usual job.

    The rate of these injuries was nearly twice the industry average. Many of these injuries are similar to those suffered by Candice Dixon, from our original report.

  • 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:

    Dixon couldn't work at Amazon anymore because of her injury. Now, more than two years later, her workers' comp settlement has run out, and she says she's still in pain.

  • Candice Dixon:

    Like, I can't stand for too long. I can't sit for too long. I don't know what else to do. I guess it's just going to be a problem that I'm going to have forever.

  • Will Evans:

    Amazon portrays its warehouses as safe and getting better. Safety is its "number one priority," and its "safety culture is built on a philosophy of continuous improvement," an Amazon executive wrote to 15 senators in February.

    But its safety record has been getting worse. Internal records show that its injury rate has increased every single year between 2016 and 2019. And our latest trove of internal documents shows Amazon knowingly misled the public about safety issues at its warehouses.

    Let's take a closer look at these safety claims. First, Amazon claims that robots they have introduced to many warehouses help improve safety.

    Amazon's CEO of worldwide consumer business, Jeff Wilke, touted the robots last year.

  • Jeff Wilke:

    So, what happens is, the robots change the work, so they allow us — people don't have to walk as far, which is a complaint that we have heard in the past. They make the job safer.

  • Will Evans:

    But Amazon's own records don't back that up. Overall, warehouses with robots actually had higher injury rates.

    In fact, the rate of serious injuries at the most common type of fulfillment center was more than 50 percent higher at robotic warehouses. Workers and former safety managers have told us robots increase the speed of production, so employees have to go faster.

    This can lead to repetitive stress injuries and safety shortcuts that result in accidents. And Amazon has insisted that injury rates do not go up during its busiest shopping times, Prime Day and the holidays.

    Last year, Amazon told us, the rate of injury has historically decreased or been stable during these two times.

    That's false. According to Amazon's own records, injury rates have spiked during the weeks of Cyber Monday and Amazon's own holiday, Prime Day.

    And, finally, Amazon says its injury rates are high due to an aggressive stance on recording injuries, no matter how big or small, according to a letter sent to lawmakers this year.

    But internal memos and interviews reveal that Amazon has tried to lower injury rates by controlling the medical care injured workers receive at several fulfillment centers. For example, at this Colorado fulfillment center, Amazon attributed its high injury rates to the medical providers who gave injured workers treatment that required Amazon to record them for OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

    So, Amazon terminated its use of an occupational clinic and switched to another.

  • Man:

    It was more or less understood that, if too many of these injuries were being recordable, that it would put the contract with that company at risk.

  • Will Evans:

    This medical provider, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, used to work for Colorado-based Advanced Urgent Care and Occupational Medicine, the clinic Amazon switched to in April of 2019.

    Amazon's own injury numbers show that, once the company changed clinics, injury rates at the warehouse went down.

    You had a bunch of different clients, but Amazon was different?

  • Man:

    Amazon felt different. You know, when an Amazon patient would come in, I would feel a little more burdened, maybe a little more anxious about what sort of care I would want to provide, but maybe would think twice about providing.

    And I began to feel more pressure from my supervisors to try to make these claims not recordable.

  • Will Evans:

    So that means changing how you treat them, right?

  • Man:

    So, for example, we were encouraged to not put any of Amazon's patients on work leave for their first visit.

  • Will Evans:

    He left the clinic last year. Looking at the clinic's current website, he criticized some of the language.

  • Man:

    "When the injury can be cared for without becoming OSHA recordable, it's good for both the employer and the injured employee."

    The bottom line is, if a patient requires a certain level of care, then that's the care that they should receive, and whether or not that claim is recordable should be an afterthought.

  • Will Evans:

    Two other advanced medical providers also said they were pressured to keep Amazon's injuries off the books.

    I got ahold of the owner of advanced, Tony Euser, who told me that wasn't the clinic's protocol.

  • Tony Euser:

    That was never a policy of our company. That was never an under-the-table policy of our company.

  • Will Evans:

    Euser says that, after this year, he will stop providing workers' comp services to companies, including Amazon.

  • Tony Euser:

    We have actually determined that this whole juggling process with companies isn't worth it. It's just too much hassle factor of trying to balance between employees and employers. And it's not worth it.

  • Will Evans:

    While Amazon sends some injured workers to clinics like Euser's, other employees have a hard time even getting that level of care.

    Former medical officer for OSHA, Kathleen Fagan, investigated Amazon for years and found the company was using its in-house EMTs to give workers improper medical care.

  • Kathleen Fagan:

    Amazon was trying to prevent workers from seeing a doctor outside. We saw evidence in the medical records of EMTs or supervisors discouraging their workers from seeking medical care.

  • Will Evans:

    What's the result of that for the workers?

  • Kathleen Fagan:

    For instance, there was a young woman who was moving a pallet, and there was dust that flew in her eye. They flushed her eye out and sent her back to work.

    After a few more days, went to see an eye doctor, who had to remove an embedded wood chip from her eye.

  • Will Evans:

    We asked Amazon about its safety claims and how its own internal memos and injury numbers contradict their statements. Amazon declined repeated requests to be interviewed, and refused to directly answer our questions.

    They sent a general written statement, saying: "Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our teams. So far, in 2020, we have committed over $1 billion in new investments in safety measures."

    Amazon spokespeople sent out an additional statement, saying it's misleading to judge their workplace safety based solely on the number of injuries: "We strongly refute the claims that we have misled anyone. We obsess about our employees and their safety."

    We showed our findings to Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, whose district houses Amazon's headquarters in Seattle.

    Do you have concerns about Amazon's ability to tell the public and lawmakers the truth?

  • Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.:

    That's at the crux of all of this, even for me, as a lawmaker. And it's what troubles me.

    I don't know that the information I'm getting from Amazon is accurate, because, mostly, Amazon denies that anything is happening, and says that there is a vast network of people who are simply reporting on things to make them look bad. I just don't believe that.

  • Will Evans:

    Amazon's stock has surged more than 60 percent this year, and, last month, the company said it's recruiting another 100,000 employees to keep up with demand during the pandemic.

    We don't yet know how the increase in online shopping during the pandemic has affected Amazon's injury numbers, but with Prime Day this month and peak holiday shopping around the corner, workers are facing the season that has had some of the highest spikes in injuries.

    For the "PBS NewsHour" and Reveal, I'm Will Evans in Emeryville, California.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Important reporting. And we do appreciate that.

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