Monday’s announcement by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration was that it opened an investigation into Friday’s tornado-related collapse at an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville. Six people were killed and another was taken to a hospital.
OSHA inspectors have been on the scene since Saturday. They will investigate whether safety rules have been followed at work. The investigation will take six months, according to Scott Allen, spokesperson.
Amazon said that workers at the warehouse didn’t have enough time to prepare for Friday night’s tornado warning. Soon after, the tornado struck and collapsed both sides of warehouse, causing its roof to cave in.
John Felton, Amazon senior vice president for global delivery services, said that there was a huge effort to keep everyone safe. He spoke alongside Illinois Governor. J.B. Pritzker was in Edwardsville Monday, and pled to review all events that occurred Friday.
Kelly Nantel, Amazon spokesperson, stated that the warehouse was alerted to tornadoes at 8:06 and 8:16 on Friday. Site leaders instructed workers to seek shelter immediately. The tornado hit the building at 8:27 p.m. Felton stated that 46 people were in the warehouse, known as a “delivery platform”, and they headed to shelter on the north side. This shelter was “nearly unaffected” and the smaller group went to the south-hit area. These are not safe rooms that can be used as separate areas, according to Felton. However, they are generally located away from windows and considered safer than the rest of the plant.
Amazon pledged to help workers and their families affected in the tragedy. It also donated $1 million to Edwardsville Community Foundation. Monday’s questions were not answered by the company regarding its disaster plans for the plant. This included whether employees were required or permitted to drill.
John Gasper, an associate professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, warned that he wasn’t privy to the details of Amazon’s events. He said that it is likely to be more difficult for Amazon, which has a high turnover of labor, to run regular emergency training programs, especially during busy holidays when there are many seasonal employees.
He said, “The time it takes to drill is the same as the time it takes them not (moving the packages) to do them.” They must consider these tradeoffs. However, I don’t believe any company would want to hurt its employees.”
Amazon’s facility was struck by a tornado as part of a series of twisters that decimated entire towns in the Midwest and South. Another tornado struck Mayfield, Kentucky and killed multiple workers working overnight. OSHA, part of the U.S. Department of Labor said that federal investigators have not been involved in the investigation into the Kentucky factory’s collapse. The state has its own workplace safety agency.
Edwardsville’s warehouse is one of many concrete-and-steel structures found in the St. Louis area over the past decade. This region is characterized by its proximity to major highways and railroads as well as cheap shipping costs. Americans expect packages to arrive within a few hours of clicking a link.
One researcher who studies Amazon’s warehouse industry said that even though Amazon’s response to the tornado was flawless, the issue is raised about the structure and location of the massive warehouses sprouting up in the Midwest. Climate experts are warning of more severe storms.
Beth Gutelius is the research director for the Center for Urban Economic Development, University of Illinois-Chicago. “We don’t consider warehousing one of the industries that’s going to be greatly impacted by climate changes but then you have cases like this,” she said. How can we ensure that the buildings are constructed in a way that protects the workers?
Gutelius stated that the central location of the warehouse industry and its lower costs have led to it growing more quickly than the national industry. Edwardsville, which is part of the Greater St. Louis region, has seen the industry triple in the past decade. Because of Amazon’s promise of fast deliveries and its artificial intelligence technology, which monitors workers’ performance and moves goods quickly, the pressure on warehouse workers and delivery workers is especially high during the holiday season.
Nantel stressed Monday at the governor’s press conference that the 1.1 million square foot building was built in compliance with code.
Pritzker suggested that the current codes may not be sufficient to deal with the increasing dangers of severe storms. Pritzker stated that there will be an investigation into the possibility of updating codes “given the serious climate change we are witnessing across the country.”
Amazon announced in June 2016 plans to build two warehouses at Edwardsville. They claimed they would create 1,000 jobs. According to an Edwardsville Intelligencer article, the one meant to handle large-screen TVs and other sports equipment. The second was used for small items like books, toys, and handheld electronics.
Marc Wulfraat is a supply chain consultant who studied Amazon’s warehouses, distribution centers and other facilities. He said that Edwardsville’s warehouse was standard in the industry, with 40-foot concrete walls. This is similar to many others around the country, as people shift from shopping in stores to buying online.
Wulfratt, president and CEO of MWPVL International in Montreal, stated that the warehouse was “basically a warehouse” with nothing distinctively Amazon. They adhere to code when they build these buildings. It is impossible to avoid it.”
Robert Hartwig, a professor of finance at Darla Moore School of Business, at the University of South Carolina said that Amazon may have property insurance with high deductibles. These policies tend to be more resilient to storms and are often recommended by financial advisors.
Hartwig, who was formerly president of the Insurance Information Institute (a trade group), stated that Amazon has a significant incentive to mitigate, making investments that reduce losses or avoid them, and designing structures that can withstand a variety perils. They will likely assume a substantial share of the loss before insurance kicks in.
Gutelius stated that she could not help but see the tragedy as a result of American consumer demand to have packages shipped quickly.
She said, “Yes, it was an accident, but the fact is that these workers were trying to make sure my dog got a frisbee tomorrow, and they sacrificed their lives for it.” It seems absurd when you consider the stakes.