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Amazon Warehouse Worker Death Prompts OSHA Investigation

An Amazon employee died at a New Jersey fulfillment center during Prime Day, leading the e-commerce giant’s workplace safety measures to once again come under scrutiny from government officials.

The death occurred July 12 at Amazon’s EWR9 fulfillment center in Carteret, N.J. The male worker has not been identified, and no cause of death has been revealed.

“We’re deeply saddened by the passing of one of our colleagues and offer our condolences to his family and friends during this difficult time,” Amazon spokesperson Sam Stephenson said in a statement. “We’ve contacted his family to offer support and will provide counseling resources to employees needing additional care.”

The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said the agency’s Avenel, N.J. office is investigating the death. The probe could take up to six months, according to a Department of Labor spokesperson.

Beginning Monday, federal prosecutors in New York and OSHA started inspecting Amazon warehouses around the U.S. as part of a civil investigation into the company’s workplace conditions. It is unclear if the civil investigation is directly related to the recent death.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York is investigating workplace safety and related issues at Amazon warehouses, including injuries resulting from workplace hazards, worker rate requirements and the pace of work, and whether Amazon appropriately reported on-the-job injuries.

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In response to referrals from the attorney’s office regarding allegations of safety and health violations at several Amazon facilities, OSHA entered Amazon warehouses outside New York City, Chicago and Orlando, Fla. to conduct workplace safety inspections in response to referrals.

“We routinely receive referrals from various federal agencies, law enforcement, advocacy groups and others,” a Department of Labor spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “Because these are active investigations, we are unable to provide more information at this time.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York did not immediately return Sourcing Journal’s request for comment.

The attorney’s office said consumers who want to report workplace safety and injury-related issues at Amazon warehouses should visit the Justice Department’s website. Current and former Amazon warehouse employees who have insight on the facility’s safety measures and working conditions can detail their experiences.

Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said in a statement to Sourcing Journal that the company will cooperate with OSHA’s investigation, saying “we believe it will ultimately show that these concerns are unfounded.”

Workplace safety, namely at the company’s warehouses and fulfillment centers, has been one of the largest ongoing criticisms Amazon has faced in recent years—so much that founder and executive chairman Jeff Bezos said last year he wanted to prioritize his commitment to making Amazon “Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work.”

As part of Bezos’ push, Amazon invested $300 million in safety improvements last year, including an initial $66.5 million to create technology that would help prevent collisions of forklifts and other types of industrial vehicles.

But the investments have done little to change public perception of the company’s labor conditions. Whether it involves allegations that workers do not get adequate lunch breaks, and in some extreme cases, have had to urinate in water bottles instead of taking a bathroom break, Amazon is routinely accused of failing to improve the employee experience.

During the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the tech titan also was entangled in litigation with New York State Attorney General Letitia James after she alleged the company failed to protect workers from the virus outbreak. That lawsuit was dismissed in May. Through November 2021, Amazon said it spent $15 billion in Covid-related costs to prioritize employee health and safety, including free coronavirus testing as well as on-site vaccination events.

After Amazon released its own workplace safety report earlier this year, the Strategic Organizing Center (SOC), a coalition of major labor unions representing more than 4 million workers, alleged that the company misleadingly compares its injury rates to Bureau of Labor Statistics injury rates for the entire warehouse and storage industry.

The report indicated that injury rates at Amazon warehouses spiked by 20 percent in 2021, based on data submitted to OSHA. Workers at Amazon facilities sustained approximately 38,000 injuries in 2021 compared to 27,700 in 2020 and 21,200 in 2019, and the serious injury rate was 6.8 per 100 Amazon workers, compared to a 3.3 per 100 rate for non-Amazon facilities, according to the study.

The SOC blamed last year’s higher injury rate on Amazon ramping up its productivity requirements after relaxing them in 2020 during the height of the pandemic.

Last September, California’s State Senate passed legislation aimed at curbing Amazon’s alleged use of warehouse production quotas (Amazon denies having these quotas in place), citing the company’s work speed as a key reason for the law. New York lawmakers passed similar legislation in June, and nine other states introduced similar bills.

The New York bill pointed out that these workplace quotas have become more commonplace in warehouses amid surging demand for same-day and next-day delivery.

In his first shareholder letter in April, CEO Andy Jassy said Amazon’s injury rates are “sometimes misunderstood,” and that the company continues to focus on reducing strains, sprains, falls and repetitive stress injuries.

“We’ve been dissecting every process path to discern how we can further improve,” Jassy said. “We have a variety of programs in flight (e.g. rotational programs that help employees avoid spending too much time doing the same repetitive motions, wearables that prompt employees when they’re moving in a dangerous way, improved shoes to provide better toe protection, training programs on body mechanics, wellness, and safety practices).”

The uproar over Amazon’s workplace conditions was a big catalyst in the recent unionization push that started and failed twice in Bessemer, Ala. and expanded to Staten Island, N.Y., home of the first Amazon warehouse to successfully unionize.

Several other facilities since made headway with their own independent campaigns, most recently at a warehouse in Albany, N.Y. known as ALB1. The workers at ALB1 are looking to organize with the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), which represented the Staten Island warehouse workers and is led by former employee-turned-whistleblower Christian Smalls.