Labor Department orders Amazon to review emergency preparedness plans after tragedy at downstate warehouse

Investigators with the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration determined the company’s severe weather emergency procedures met “minimal federal safety guidelines for storm sheltering,” according to a statement released Tuesday.

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A heavily damaged Amazon fulfillment center is seen Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, in Edwardsville, Ill.

First responders surround a damaged Amazon Distribution Center on Dec. 11, 2021, in Edwardsville, Illinois.

AP Photos

The U.S. Department of Labor issued a letter Tuesday ordering Amazon to review its emergency weather procedures after six workers were killed and another severely wounded when a tornado hit a downstate warehouse in December.

Investigators with the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration determined the company’s severe weather emergency procedures met “minimal federal safety guidelines for storm sheltering,” according to a statement released Tuesday.

“These tragic deaths have sparked discussions nationwide on the vital need for comprehensive workplace emergency plans,” said OSHA’s Regional Administrator William Donovan. “Employers should re-evaluate their emergency plans for the safest shelter-in-place locations and prepare before an emergency to ensure workers know where to go and how to keep themselves safe in the event of a disaster.”

According to the Hazard Alert Letter sent to the company, investigators at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Edwardsville found the megaphone used to initiate shelter-in-place procedures was locked away and inaccessible. By interviewing workers, investigators determined some employees did not know the proper location to shelter-in-place and had never participated in training for responding to severe weather events.

Investigators also found the warehouse’s emergency plan did not contain instructions for events that may occur in Edwardsville and instead listed responses to events that would not happen in Southern Illinois, such as a hurricane.

The letter recommends Amazon ensure all employees be provided proper training, that there be site-specific information in severe weather emergency plans and that the locations of audible warning devices, such as megaphones, be clearly identified.

A spokesperson for Amazon said the company has emergency plans that identify exit routes and shelter areas and that all employees receive emergency response training which is reinforced through the year.

“The tornado that hit our delivery station was extreme and very sudden, with winds that were much like the force of a category 4 hurricane, and we believe our team did the right thing, moving people to shelter as soon as the warning was issued,” said the spokesperson, Kelly Nantel.

“OSHA’s investigation did not find any violations or causes for citations, but we’re constantly looking to innovate and improve our safety measures and have already begun conducting additional safety and emergency preparedness drills at our sites and will carefully consider any OSHA recommendation that we have not already,” Nantel added.

The six workers were killed Dec. 10, after a category three tornado struck the Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville.

The family of 26-year-old Austin McEwen, a delivery driver killed inside the warehouse, sued the company in January.

The lawsuit claims Amazon “carelessly required individuals ... to continue working up until the moments before the tornado struck.”

It also states Amazon “improperly directed” McEwen and others to seek shelter in a bathroom, which they “knew or should have known” wasn’t a safe place.

The McEwen’s lawyer, Jack Casciato, told reporters earlier this month that a government-mandated structural engineer also found “numerous” support columns in the warehousewere not properly attached to the ground.

Casciato asserts the building’s construction was a contributing factor in the deaths of McEwen and the five other workers.

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