Amazon's New Safety Crisis Could Be Heat Waves

As a frying planet becomes a fact of life, air conditioning could become the next warehouse battleground.

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Photo: Ross D. Franklin (AP)

Amazon workers have faced no shortage of health hazards in the company’s warehouses. While we’ve focused on injuries, inadequate restroom access, covid-19 safeguards, and psychological torment, extreme heat could become the next imminent threat in the face of climate change.

Record-breaking heat has gripped the Northwest. In a region where air conditioning isn’t the norm, it’s wrought havoc, including reportedly inside at least one Amazon warehouse. The Seattle Times reported that workers at the company’s Kent, Washington facility endured near-90-degree-Fahrenheit (32-degree-Celsius) heat while some stations pushed employees to work at maximum speed in the unprecedented weather for so-called “power hours.” One worker told the paper that some of Amazon’s floor fans were broken and that the facility hadn’t prepared to cool the space for the foreseeable heat wave.

Another worker said that they were pleased with cooling at a nearby facility, and the paper reported that the company emailed contractors nationwide instructing them to give drivers extra break time during the heat wave. When asked by Earther, an Amazon spokesperson did not address the specific report from the Kent facility. Instead, they said that the facilities are in fact climate-controlled.

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“In an unprecedented heat wave like this, we’re glad that we installed climate control in our fulfillment centers many years ago,” Amazon spokesperson Maria Boschetti said. “We have systems in place that constantly measure the temperature in the building and the safety team monitors temperature on every floor individually. We’re also making sure that everyone has easy access to water and can take time off if they choose to, though we’re finding that many people prefer to be in our buildings because of the A/C.”

But Amazon has reportedly neglected to cool other sweltering facilities recently, while forcing workers to perform strenuous labor, sometimes with dire consequences.

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In 2019, Chicago workers publicly battled with Amazon for air conditioning, writing in a petition that, during a week under an excessive heat watch, “the only step Amazon management has taken to combat heat exhaustion is to give us popsicles.” (The group told Earther on Monday that Amazon compromised with overhead and wheel-in fans. Amazon has since shut that facility down.) In March, workers who organized a union drive in Bessemer, Alabama told Sen. Bernie Sanders that management repeatedly refused pleas to turn the fans on in overbearing heat; one said that a woman had a heart attack and collapsed on the floor. Just months later, a worker there collapsed and died, though the cause of death is unknown.

Amazon did not address the death of the warehouse worker in Bessemer or the reports of lack of cooling there.

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“This has always been a problem at Amazon, in my experience,” activist Christian Smalls said, adding that he’d worked in intense summertime heat for years in warehouses in Connecticut, New Jersey, and Staten Island. (Smalls was controversially fired last year from the JFK8 facility in Staten Island after leading a protest against inadequate covid-19 protections.) Smalls is now leading a union drive at four New York warehouses and claims that organizers have set up a tent across from the warehouse to distribute water to employees. (You can donate here to help them cover water bottles, as part of union campaign funds.)

The buildings had air conditioning, he said, but it’s blowing cold air at a radiator. “The problem is when you have a conveyor system—especially at JFK8, which has 16 miles of conveyors—the heat just continues to pump out of these machines, and the heat rises,” he said. “So for the workers who are on the higher floors, it doesn’t matter what you do.”

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A JFK8 worker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, shared images of a JFK8 monitor showing internal temperatures of up to 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius). They also showed documentation of numerous requests to management asking that they cool the building. On-site water coolers are often warm, they said, and sometimes dysfunctional, so they bring their own water to work. They added that the facility provides no additional breaks on hot days aside from the standard two offered on a 10-hour shift.

Heat isn’t just burdensome; studies have found that potentially fatal heatstroke can later lead to organ failure and neurological damage, and heat stress can magnify preexisting conditions such as asthma and heart disease. “Indoor heat is a serious and increasing hazard for warehouse workers,” researcher Cora Roelofs, who authored a 2018 study of rising heat-related workplace illness, wrote in an email. “Employers such as Amazon need to take seriously their obligation to protect workers from heat by reducing time and intensity of working in the heat.”

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Climate change is increasing the odds of extreme heat. The Pacific Northwest heat wave is only the latest manifestation of heat becoming both more intense and widespread. At this point, scientists’ operating assumption is that every heat wave is being impacted by climate change.

That raises huge public health risks; the National Weather Service lists heat as the top weather-related killer. A stark report from leading medical experts has also found that rising temperatures have exposed millions more people around the world to extreme heat. In 2017, the report found that 153 billion hours of labor evaporated because it was simply too hot to work. While much of the focus has rightfully been on outdoor workers such as landscapers and farm laborers, warehouses have proven to be equally oppressive and dangerous when proper cooling and ventilation are forsaken in the name of profit.

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In a 2011 report, labor researchers from UCLA surveyed 101 warehouse workers about their conditions. They found that only 63 out of 361 regional warehouse buildings provided air conditioning; many workers reported that they’d had little or no access to water; one reported watching a coworker faint in heat that rose to more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius), never to return again after paramedics carried them out.

Despite years of calls and a petition from hundreds of worker advocacy groups, OSHA still doesn’t have a heat safety guideline it can proactively enforce at facilities. Because OSHA often takes years to implement guidelines, lawmakers have introduced the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, which would set a two-year deadline for OSHA to create a heat stress standard. That standard would establish baseline requirements such as limits on heat stress exposure, access to emergency medical services, and adequate water and rest breaks.

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Juley Fulcher, a prominent advocate for the act and a worker health and safety advocate at the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said that while OSHA has sometimes used the general duty clause to punish employers who’ve exposed workers to extreme heat. Those cases, she said, often don’t come until a worker has suffered serious injury or died.

“The courts have been pretty clear that this needs to happen,” Fulcher said, citing several cases such as one brought on behalf of postal workers who’d been hospitalized due to extreme heat. An administrative law judge ruled that OSHA could not fine the USPS because they hadn’t established a standard for unacceptable heat exposure.

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Fulcher would like to see heat stress treated not just as a temporary health hazard but more like an ever-present environmental contaminant. “People don’t realize that heat illness can do long-term damage to your body,” she pointed out. Studies suggest that habitual heat exposure can lead to chronic kidney disease, and strenuous work in heat can cause muscle damage.

“We find it actually takes the body a good eight-to-12 hours in a cool environment to recover [from heat stress],” Fulcher said. “And if you don’t have air conditioning at home or adequate ventilation, it just builds and builds and builds and builds. Even if you do have a cool environment at home, going into extreme heat one day after another becomes more and more dangerous because of the build-up in your body.” Then, she added, a warehouse without air conditioning won’t cool overnight in a heat wave, just bake, like a car in a parking lot.

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She added that the problem extends far beyond Amazon warehouses, but the company’s relentless time pressures, limited break times, and “power hours” don’t really gel with heat safety.

We don’t know how many warehouse workers have even become seriously ill on the job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows an average of around 300 nonfatal heat-related injury reports in all of transportation and warehouses from 2011 to 2019. But OSHA has acknowledged that BLS injury data has been historically incomplete; a 2016 survey of 579 inspections revealed that half-suppressed injury data.

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Of course, the better solution is mitigating carbon pollution, which unchecked will most definitely make the workday more grueling in, and far beyond, U.S. warehouses.

In the meantime, Mijin Cha, assistant professor at Cornell University who specializes in climate justice, pointed out via email that employers in traditionally more temperate regions will likely need to make radical architectural changes to keep employees safe. Buildings in Southern California might be outfitted for heat waves, but that might not be true for areas like the Pacific Northwest.

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“And, of course,” she wrote, “the people who will experience the brunt of these climate-change driven hazards will be workers and vulnerable communities, who are the ones that will have to work in these conditions and who have the least resources to address it.”