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Amazon worker deaths in tornados raise questions about tornado training and cellphone policy

After six workers died, workers complained of little tornado preparation and pushed back against rules saying they can’t use phones at work.
Image: Emergency vehicles surround the site of a roof collapse at an Amazon distribution centre in Edwardsville
A roof collapsed at an Amazon distribution center Saturday in Edwardsville, Ill. Drone Base / Reuters

After tornadoes killed six workers at an Amazon distribution center in Edwardsville, Illinois, some Amazon workers have raised concerns about how the company handles emergency responses and about cellphone policies it plans to reintroduce next year, which workers have described as draconian.

Workers at two neighboring Amazon facilities in Edwardsville, just outside St. Louis, who were also in the path of the tornadoes overnight Friday said they have had little training in preparing for tornadoes and bristled at a company policy that multiple sources have said the company is trying to bring back Jan. 1, which would ban workers from having cellphones at work. 

Two employees who work at nearby facilities said they had been given very little tornado-specific training and were expected to work through tornado warnings.

“We have never had any tornado drills, nor had we sheltered in place for any of the warnings we’ve had in the past,” said a woman who has worked for the past two years at STL8, another Amazon facility about 66 miles west of Edwardsville, and is not authorized to speak publicly. She added that during two previous tornado warnings during her overnight shift, she was expected to continue working even when the company sounded alarms. 

But Alisa Carroll, a company spokeswoman, said “emergency response training is provided to new employees and that training is reinforced throughout the year.”

Workers across Amazon facilities also pushed back against a policy that Amazon is bringing back barring phones at work. For years, Amazon has banned workers from carrying their phones in warehouse facilities. The company relaxed the policy during the coronavirus pandemic and then started to reinstate it at warehouses across the country, Bloomberg reported.

Asked about Bloomberg’s reporting and an understanding among workers that the ban would be reinstated Jan. 1, Carroll declined to answer directly.

“Employees and drivers are allowed to have their cell phones with them,” she said by email.

A second worker, who also was not authorized to speak publicly and who works at STL4, the building diagonally across the street from the damaged facility, said in a written message that one of her closest co-workers was grateful that she had a phone with her. If she had not had her phone, she would not have known to run to shelter.

“We live in the midwest. Tornado watches and warnings happen ALL THE TIME. Most days we barely bat an eye at storm watches, and we are accustomed to taking shelter in a moment’s notice at warnings,” she wrote. “But you can’t take shelter if you don’t get the warning.”

Workers said having phones with them was a lifeline overnight Friday. Rob Elmore, 38, a seasonal process assistant at the facility diagonally across the street from the center that was hit by the tornado, said he was able to stay in touch with his family through the tornadoes.

I was getting text messages left and right from family members, said Elmore, who has worked at Amazon for over a year.

Digging deeper

Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokeswoman, said in a statement “We’re deeply saddened by the news that members of our Amazon family passed away as a result of the storm in Edwardsville, IL. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their loved ones, and everyone impacted by the tornado. We also want to thank all the first responders for their ongoing efforts on scene. We’re continuing to provide support to our employees and partners in the area.”

John Felton, Amazon’s senior vice president of global delivery services, also said at a news conference Monday that “all procedures were followed correctly.” 

But the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, said Monday that it had opened an investigation into the collapse of the DLI4 building in Edwardsville where the six workers died.

Safety personnel and first responders survey the damaged Amazon distribution center Saturday in Edwardsville, Ill.Michael B. Thomas / Getty Images

“OSHA has had compliance officers at the complex since Saturday, December 11 to provide assistance,” wrote Scott Allen, the regional director of public affairs for the Labor Department. “OSHA has six months to complete its investigation, issue citations and propose monetary penalties if violations of workplace safety and or health regulations are found.”

Carroll said in a statement that “OSHA investigates all workplace fatalities and we are supporting them."

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said at the news conference Monday that local officials have started “to determine if there were any structural issues” at the distribution center. He said his administration has asked Amazon whether it followed best practices in terms of safety procedures at the warehouse. 

The collapse has only stirred the anger of Amazon workers across the country who have been trying to unionize. Chris Smalls, a former Amazon employee who leads the Amazon Labor Union, an independent effort to organize warehouse staff members, said in a statement that the collapse shows that workers need a labor union.

“The needless deaths were a reminder of Amazon keeping shifts going during other disasters, such as at the Staten Island facility during Hurricane Ida,” he said.

UPDATE: This article has been updated to include additional responses from Amazon.