This article was published on September 21, 2011

Amazon responds to complaints about poor working conditions in warehouses

Amazon responds to complaints about poor working conditions in warehouses
Matthew Panzarino
Story by

Matthew Panzarino

Matthew Panzarino was Managing Editor at TNW. He's no longer with the company, but you can follow him on Twitter. Matthew Panzarino was Managing Editor at TNW. He's no longer with the company, but you can follow him on Twitter.

An article from the Morning Call that was published on Saturday sparked a wave of discussion about the working conditions in Amazon warehouses. The article cited a healthy sampling, by way of anecdotal examples from employees and ex-employees, of complaints about the working conditions in the company’s Lehigh County, PA warehouses.

The warehouses, located near Allentown and Breinigsville, apparently reached very high temperatures during the summer, hitting 100-103 degree temperatures, if not higher. These temperatures, coupled with the fact that many of Amazon’s east coast facilities are not equipped with air conditioning, led to workers suffering heat related exhaustion and other conditions, some of which were treated medically.

We reached out to Amazon to see if it had any thoughts regarding these claims and it replied to us with this statement:

At Amazon, the safety and well-being of our employees is our number one priority. We have several procedures in place to ensure the safety of our associates during the summer heat, including increased breaks, shortened shifts, constant reminders and help about hydration, and extra ice machines.

Our fulfillment team was dealing with record hot temperatures this past summer.  We have air conditioning in some FC’s – Phoenix, AZ for example — but we haven’t historically had air conditioning in our east coast fulfillment centers.  We’re in the process of adding air conditioning to additional FC’s so that we’re prepared in case what we saw this past summer becomes the new normal.

The statement is simple and to the point, referring to the fact that the temperatures normally do not reach that height in its east coast facilities. A cursory search for the average temperatures in Allentown bears this up, as the average temperatures hover around 78 degrees and the highs normally never exceed 98.

Just for corroboration, we obtained permission to reproduce a letter sent to Amazon customer and developer Manton Reece, after he sent in a strongly worded email about the issues raised in the article.

The beginning portion of the letter is the same as the response given to us, but the remainder of the letter actually gives us more detail about what Amazon is doing to prevent problems due to heat in the future.

July 2011 was a highly unusual month and set records for the hottest temperatures during any single calendar month in cities across the East Coast. As a result of the abnormally high temperatures, we took many additional precautions to ensure the safety of our associates including closing our Breinigsville facility three times during the summer heat wave. We also supplemented our cooling systems by placing industrial AC units in all of our East Coast facilities, including Breinigsville. Also, in case associates needed any medical attention, we had our onsite healthcare team immediately available to attend to any needs. We are looking at additional measures we can take in the future, including permanent cooling solutions for our Breinigsville facility.

Thank you for your feedback. We hope to see you again soon.

And indeed, a search for jobs in the Allentown area returns several positions that are labeled as Onsite Medical Representatives. These workers are said to “provide First aid treatment to injured employees, proactively analyze tasks for potential safety issues, participate in the workers’ compensation process, and implement a site wellness program.”

The job postings were listed on September 19, 2011, just two days after the article in the Morning Call.

The complaints in the article were extensive, and stretched across 20 workers, but not all of them felt that the conditions were unbearable. Ron Heckman, a 60 year-old resident of Allentown began working at the warehouse in 2010. “A lot of people say it’s hot and you feel aggravated at times and you wish it wasn’t as hot as it was, but it’s the nature of the job,” Heckman told the Morning Call. “Not many people felt it was unbearable.”

But Heckman also worked the overnight shift, when it isn’t as hot. That wasn’t the case with 34-year-old Elmer Goris, who quit in July because of the heat. Goris said that the heat in the warehouse was regularly over 100 degrees and he has seen a co-worker pass out at a water fountain. “I never felt like passing out in a warehouse and I never felt treated like a piece of crap in any other warehouse but this one,” Goris said. “They can do that because there aren’t any jobs in the area.”

The article is extensive and goes on to cite many more workers in the Lehigh Valley area that had issues with the heat. The explanation of unusually high temperatures in facilities that have not needed air conditioning previously seems relatively convenient, but the job listings, along with the consistent message that Amazon is delivering does raise hopes that the workers at these facilities will see improvements in the months to come.

If you’re a worker in an Amazon facility and you’ve experienced conditions like these, or have had a favorable experience instead, let us know in the comments below or via email.

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