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Amazon Upgrades Warehouse AC After Worker Death

Amazon is reportedly installing new air conditioning in a Carteret, N.J. warehouse where an employee died in July during Prime Day.

One photo obtained by NBC News shows what appears to be a large ducting system installed on a ground floor of the warehouse in Carteret, known as EWR9.

Workers told the news outlet the equipment was part of a new industrial air conditioner that the company added weeks after the death of Rafael Reynaldo Mota Frias, a 42-year-old Dominican national, in mid-July.

It wasn’t clear if the system was up and running yet.

Amazon did not immediately respond to Sourcing Journal’s request for comment. The company has previously said that it an internal investigation determined that the death “was not a work-related incident, and instead was related to a personal medical condition.”

NBC News, which secured testimony from several EWR9 warehouse workers, indicated that Frias died after collapsing around 8 a.m. on July 13 during the busy Prime Day shopping rush, which coincided with a heat wave that drove outdoor temperatures in N.J. into the low-90s. Facility workers and Amazon Labor Union president Chris Smalls have said they believe the heat was a factor, alleging that Frias had been kept working despite telling management he was having chest pains.

At the EWR9 warehouse, employees said the atmosphere changed temporarily following Frias’ death, as managers seemed to soften up, before tightening up again, according to NBC News. Workers said they believed that firings over small infractions were occurring more frequently and that management had imposed tighter rules in some areas, like preventing workers from using their phones at their stations, even to listen to music.

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The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is investigating Frias’ death. The probe could take up to six months, according to a Department of Labor spokesperson.

OSHA also opened another probe into two more deaths at two other N.J. warehouses after the Prime Day incident.

On July 24, a worker at Amazon’s PNE5 warehouse in Robbinsville sustained injuries in a workplace accident before passing away three days later. Early that morning, the worker fell from a three-foot ladder and struck his head in an open docking bay, according to news reports.

Shortly after, on Aug. 4, an Amazon worker at the company’s DEY6 delivery station facility in Monroe Township died on the job. Details have not been revealed.

And as climate change draws more attention to heat-related illnesses and health concerns, OSHA may soon be on the precipice of establishing federal rules to protect U.S. workers laboring in extreme heat conditions.

Currently, there is no specific federal policy that governs heat-related workplace safety, leaving states to set their own approach. Only four states have permanent heat-related workplace safety regulations: Washington, California, Oregon and Minnesota.

Employees at Amazon warehouses are seeking to draw attention to heat problems at the facilities. Dozens of workers at an Amazon air hub in San Bernardino, Calif. staged a walkout earlier this month, citing heat-related job risks among other complaints.

And at the EWR9 facility in N.J., one employee took a photo of a hydration chart posted in the one of the warehouse bathrooms after Frias’ death. The chart illustrates dehydration risks indicated by urine color.

The new OSHA investigation once again is putting fresh scrutiny on Amazon’s injury rates and workplace safety procedures, which labor and safety advocates have long criticized as inadequate. The Strategic Organizing Center (SOC), a coalition of major labor unions representing more than 4 million workers, said 37 percent of injured Amazon workers who responded to its online survey reported that management pressured them to return to work before they felt ready to do so.

As part of executive chairman Jeff Bezos’ push to make Amazon “Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work,” the company invested $300 million in safety improvements last year, including an initial $66.5 million to create technology that will help prevent collisions of forklifts and other types of industrial vehicles.

OSHA already established a broader investigation into Amazon warehouses around the time of Frias’ death. In late July, OSHA officials inspected Amazon facilities in New York, Illinois and Florida after receiving referrals alleging health and safety violations from the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York.

The civil division of the U.S. attorney’s office is also investigating safety hazards at Amazon warehouses and “fraudulent conduct designed to hide injuries from OSHA and others,” according to a spokesperson for the office.

OSHA isn’t just targeting Amazon, despite the high-profile nature of its recent investigations into the e-commerce giant. Earlier this month the agency launched a regional initiative to protect workers and reduce injuries and illnesses in the warehousing, storage and distribution yards’ industries. The program began on Aug. 3 across Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia and Washington, and will run through 2027.

As part of the initiative, OSHA will conduct on-site inspections related to the use of powered industrial trucks, such as forklifts, lockout and tagout procedures, machine guarding, means of egress and fire suppression. Inspections will not include marine terminals or shipyards.

The federal agency has been busy lately in its inspections of various dollar stores, proposing $1.29 million in safety-related fines on Dollar General and $1.23 million in fees for Dollar Tree. Last month, OSHA levied more than $330,000 in fines to Family Dollar in connection with a fatal shoplifting incident.