After six workers died at an Amazon warehouse in Illinois that was hit by a powerful tornado on December 10, the company is walking back its plans to reinstate a workplace ban on cell phones.
According to Bloomberg, certain Amazon employees received a notice from the company on Friday afternoon informing them that personal cell phones will still be admitted on the warehouse floor “until further notice,” a policy that runs contrary to the company’s previous commitment to restart the ban beginning in January 2022.
Amazon didn’t explicitly say that the abrupt reversal had been influenced by the deadly tornado that killed six workers after it ripped through the company’s Edwardsville, Illinois, warehouse earlier this month, partially flattening parts of the building as workers sheltered in the bathroom and prompting an OSHA investigation. But workers’ safety concerns do seem to have played a part in influencing the decision. The announcement also comes amid a concerning spike in Covid-19 cases, deadly warehouse shootings, and a general uptick in weather-related disasters—all events in which workers might reasonably require their phones for up-to-the-minute alerts and key safety guidance.
On Monday, a group of lawmakers led by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representatives Cori Bush and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sent a letter to Amazon seeking answers regarding the circumstances surrounding the deaths of its warehouse employees. The letter says that the tragedy fits into “a larger pattern: Amazon puts worker safety at risk in everyday situations and emergencies alike.”
Amazon has never had a stellar reputation for safety—or for caring about the well-being of its workers, for that matter—but a particularly egregious lack of communication during the tornado earlier this month might have also played a role in getting the company to walk back its cell phone ban. Recently publicized text messages between one of Amazon’s delivery drivers and a dispatcher show that the driver was repeatedly told to stay the course and finish their deliveries, despite the tornado sirens wailing in the distance.
“If you decide to return with your packages, it will be viewed as you refusing your route, which will ultimately end with you not having a job come tomorrow morning,” the dispatcher said during the exchange, to which the driver responded, “I’m literally stuck in this damn van without a safe place to go with a tornado on the ground.”