Photo courtesy Ross D. Franklin ( AP ).
Amazon warehouse workers have been exposed to a variety of health risks. We have focused on injuries, inaccessible restrooms, covid-19 safeguards and psychological torment. But, we don't know if extreme heat will be the next threat from climate change.
The Northwest has been hit with record-breaking heat. It caused havoc in a region without air conditioning, and at least one Amazon warehouse was among the victims. According to the Seattle Times, workers in the Kent, Washington facility were subject to near-90 degree heat. Some stations also forced employees to work at their maximum speed due to the unusual weather conditions.
Another worker stated that cooling was good at the facility nearby. The paper also reported that contractors across the country were instructed by the company to give drivers more time during heat waves. Earther asked Amazon about the Kent facility report. An Amazon spokesperson declined to answer Earther's questions. They said instead that climate control is a feature of the facilities.
Maria Boschetti, Amazon spokesperson, said that climate control was a necessity in such extreme heat waves. The temperature is constantly monitored and monitored by the safety team. We also make sure everyone has water at their disposal and can leave if necessary. However, we have found that many people like to stay in our buildings due to the A/C.
Amazon, however, has apparently neglected to cool other sweltering areas recently while forcing workers to do strenuous labor with sometimes dire consequences.
Chicago workers fought with Amazon for air conditioning in 2019. They wrote a petition stating that Amazon had failed to provide popsicles during a week of excessive heat. That facility has been closed by Amazon since then. Workers from Bessemer, Alabama organized a union drive. They told Senator Bernie Sanders that the management refused to turn on the fans in the heat. One worker claimed that a woman suffered a heart attack and fell on the floor. A worker from the union died a few months later. The cause of his death is not known.
Amazon didn't address the deaths of warehouse workers in Bessemer, nor did it address reports of cooling problems there.
Amazon has had this problem since the beginning, according to activist Christian Smalls. He told Gizmodo that he worked for years in extreme summer heat in warehouses in Connecticut and New Jersey. After leading protests against insufficient covid-19 protections, Smalls was fired from JFK8 on Staten Island last year. Smalls is leading a union drive in four New York warehouses. He claims organizers set up a tent next to the warehouse to distribute water. You can donate here to help cover the cost of water bottles for their union campaign funds.
He said that the AC was working but it was blowing cold air at a radiator. He said that when you have a conveyor system, such as JFK8, with 16 miles of conveyors, the heat simply continues to rise. It doesn't matter how high you go for workers on higher floors.
Heat is not just a problem. Studies have shown that heatstroke can lead to brain damage and organ failure, and can also cause heat stress. Warehouse workers are at risk from indoor heat, according to Cora Roelofs (author of a 2018 study on heat-related workplace illnesses), in an email to Gizmodo. Amazon and other employers need to be serious about their duty to heat-proof workers by reducing the time spent in the heat.
Extreme heat is becoming more likely due to climate change. The latest example of heat becoming more intense and wider-spread is the Pacific Northwest heat wave. Scientists assume that all heat waves are being affected by climate change.
This poses huge health risks for the public. According to the National Weather Service, heat is the leading weather-related killer. Leading medical experts have also reported that extreme heat has affected millions more people worldwide due to rising temperatures. According to the report, 2017 saw 153 billion hours of work evaporated due to heat. Although most of the attention has been given to outdoor workers like landscapers and farmers, warehouses can prove equally dangerous and oppressive when proper cooling and ventilation is neglected in the name of profit.
UCLA labor researchers surveyed 101 warehouse workers in a 2011 study. The UCLA labor researchers found that only 63 of the 361 regional warehouses had air conditioning. Many workers said that they didn't have access to water and one even witnessed a colleague fainting in extreme heat.
OSHA has not created a heat safety standard that it can enforce at facilities despite hundreds of petitions and years of work from worker advocacy groups. OSHA can take years to implement guidelines. Therefore, lawmakers introduced the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act. This would give OSHA a two year deadline to develop a heat stress standard. This standard would establish the minimum requirements for heat stress exposure, emergency medical services access, adequate water, and rest breaks.
Juley Fulcher is a well-known advocate for the act. She is also a worker safety and health advocate at Public Citizen, a non-profit consumer advocacy group. OSHA has used the general duty clause sometimes to punish employers who have exposed workers to extreme heat. She said that these cases are often not filed until the worker has died or suffered severe injury.
Fulcher stated that the courts have made it clear that this is what needs to be done. He cited several cases, including one for postal workers who were hospitalized because of extreme heat. OSHA could not penalize the USPS for failing to establish a standard for unacceptable heat exposure, an administrative law judge ruled.
Fulcher wants heat stress to be treated as an environmental contaminant, not just as a temporary danger to health. She pointed out that heat illness can cause long-term harm to the body. Research suggests that prolonged heat exposure can lead to chronic kidney disease and can also cause muscle damage.
Fulcher stated that the body needs to rest in cool environments for eight to 12 hours to recover from heat stress. It doesn't matter if there isn't adequate ventilation or air conditioning in your home, it will just build up. Even if your home is cool, extreme heat can make it more dangerous.
She said that the problem goes beyond Amazon warehouses. However, the relentless time pressures of the company, the limited breaks and the long hours don't really gel with heat safety.
It is unknown how many warehouse workers have become seriously ill while on the job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were an average of 300 heat-related injuries in warehouses and transportation from 2011 to 2019. OSHA acknowledges that BLS injury data is not complete. A 2016 survey of 579 inspections found that only half the data was available.
The best solution is to reduce carbon pollution. Unchecked, this will make your workday in U.S. warehouses more difficult.
Mijin Cha (an assistant professor at Cornell University who studies climate justice) pointed out via email, that employers in historically more temperate areas will likely have to make drastic architectural changes in order to ensure employees' safety. While buildings in Southern California may be equipped for heat waves, that may not hold true for the Pacific Northwest.
She also wrote that the most affected by climate change-driven hazards will be workers and vulnerable populations. These are the groups who will have to work under these conditions and have the least resources.