- Tornado drills were rarely performed in the Amazon warehouse that collapsed, employees told Insider.
- Shelter areas were bathrooms and break rooms, rather than built-for-purpose structures.
- Amazon employees said they didn’t think the company took extreme weather seriously.
As the Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, started to collapse on December 11, the workers set a challenge: Get to one end of the warehouse, which was the length of five football fields, and shelter in the break room or bathroom.
These were the designated tornado safe zones, Amazon employees told Insider. They couldn’t fit all of the staff in there, but that was the only choice they had because leaving through an EF3 category tornado with wind speed estimated at 136 mph to 165 mph wasn’t an option.
Six people died in the warehouse collapse, which left families grieving and traumatized those who survived the destruction.
The city of Edwardsville, Illinois, is no stranger to tornadoes. Rebecca (whose name has been changed for fear of losing her job), an assistant manager at an Amazon warehouse directly across the street from the one the tornado hit, said: “We live in an area of the states called Tornado Alley. Amazon should take that seriously.”
While tornado drills exist in theory, they’re rarely practiced or explained, so most employees don’t know how to safely manage a tornado, Rebecca said.
That meant that chaos erupted when the walls of the Amazon warehouse began to disintegrate after the tornado hit the building, she said.
Rebecca, who used to work in the safety division of Amazon, told Insider “Amazon doesn’t have actual bunkers or anything like that for tornados. Instead, it would just be equivalent to shelter near a bathroom or place where there are some walls to stop something falling directly on top of you.”
And Cari McCollum, a former Amazon warehouse worker in Illinois, agreed. She told Insider that, during a tornado, “wherever you were, you were supposed to stop what you were doing and go straight to the closest designated area for shelter. And those were the rear restrooms, and break area and the front restrooms.”
One of the deceased, whom Rebecca knew, died trying to get people into the safe zones, she said.
An Amazon spokesperson told Insider: “Our leaders on the ground followed their training moving quickly to get people to take shelter immediately. Employees were directed to shelter in place at the designated Assembly Area at the front of the building, which was near a restroom.”
Insider’s Katherine Long detailed the 911 calls from inside the collapsing warehouse, which heard Amazon employees saying the bathroom was “blocked in on us,” and, “and we’re underneath a bunch of rubble. …I hear other people screaming but I don’t know where they are. … I’m so scared. Please help me.”
Some Amazon workers said that more Edwardsville workers might have survived if Amazon had a more rigorous focus on preparing for natural disasters, The Intercept reports.
Amazon staff expected to work in extreme weather
Both Rebecca and McCollum said that going into work when a tornado warning was in place was standard practice at Amazon.
It’s a “‘the show must go on’ type of thing,” McCollum said. “You know, you just kind of gotta go in, and if there’s a real warning, then we would get a shelter in place, and then get to wondering whether or not it was structurally able to withstand something” such as a tornado.
“I was devastated having known people that work there and worried for them,” McCollum said. “But I wasn’t surprised that it was damaged because I had the feeling that it wasn’t really that strong.”
It’s not the first time that Amazon staff have had to work through extreme weather. Insider’s Grace Dean previously reported that warehouse staff had to work through an extreme heatwave. The company supplied employees with iced scarves rather than allocated leave.
When Insider asked Rebecca and McCollum whether Amazon employees could take leave in incidents of extreme weather, they said they could, but only within the limitations of allotted paid or unpaid leave. If you’ve used up your days off — which is likely close to the holiday season, where workers often take time off to be with their families — then you either go into work or risk being fired for missing your shifts.
Hannah Towey’s report for Insider on this issue detailed how one Amazon delivery driver in Kentucky, another state devastated by intense tornadoes, was refused leave by the company as a tornado ravaged the countryside around her until she tweeted one of the company’s top executives.
‘It just feels like all the employees may as well be robots or inanimate objects’
McCollum told Insider about the wide-reaching effects that the deaths of six Amazon employees had on their colleagues.
The grief and fear were one element — rushing to check whether their friends were working on the day of the collapse, for example — but another was the “alienation” of employees. And this, McCollum said, started from the top with Jeff Bezos, who was celebrating the sixth launch of his Blue Origin rocket as the warehouse collapsed.
“There was an emergency situation going on, and that should have taken priority,” McCollum added. “It just feels like all the employees may as well be robots or inanimate objects.”
These safety fears for Amazon workers, which are not new, have led to calls for legislators to challenge Amazon and its treatment of its employees.
Warehouse Workers for Justice, a group working to organize Amazon workers in Illinois, said: “Because of Amazon’s poor record of worker safety in the relentless pursuit of profit, we call on Illinois legislators to convene a hearing to ensure all Amazon facilities are places of safety for workers and that no family has to worry whether or not their loved ones will make it home from work after an extreme weather event.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the warehouse collapse.