The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Members of Congress want answers from Amazon on warehouse collapse

Letter follows death of six workers at facility destroyed by tornado in Edwardsville, Ill.

A vigil is held Dec. 17 near the Amazon site in Edwardsville, Ill. (Derik Holtmann/Belleville News-Democrat/AP)
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Members of Congress are demanding that Amazon detail the safety procedures it followed before and during the tornado disaster that killed six workers at its distribution center in Edwardsville, Ill., 10 days ago, accusing the company of putting worker safety at risk.

The letter from more than a dozen lawmakers asks Amazon for documents and details about its policies for safety drills, storm shelters and flexible working hours during storms. It also wants to know how those policies were carried out during the Illinois storm.

“As the second-largest private employer in the United States, it is not enough for Amazon to just create jobs. Amazon has a responsibility to its workforce to create safe, dependable jobs with livable wages that do not cost people their lives, health, and well-being,” reads the letter from lawmakers including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y) and Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.). Two of the victims lived in Bush’s St. Louis-area district.

The letter follows questions from some relatives of the deceased workers, whose bodies were recovered in the rubble at the south end of the warehouse, where the worst of the collapse occurred.

Anguish and gratitude as tornado slashed through Amazon warehouse

Amazon officials and survivors of the incident say most workers were sheltering at the north end of building in a designated shelter area near a bank of bathrooms. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Baby Hebb, stepmother of Etheria Hebb, who was killed in the collapse, said she wants to know why such a large building appeared to have only one shelter area.

“It was so many square feet. I mean, you should have more than one safety spot for all those workers,” Baby Hebb told The Washington Post in an interview Friday after an outdoor vigil for the deceased workers.

A 911 call placed minutes after the collapse suggests that Etheria Hebb died in a women’s bathroom on the south side of the building. Two survivors who placed the call described a third woman lying unresponsive beside them after the building fell. Hebb was the only woman to die when the distribution center’s walls collapsed.

“I was aware she was in a bathroom, and I was like, is that where they tell them to go? I mean, we’re wondering,” Baby Hebb said, adding that she also wanted to know what sort of training workers had for coping with natural disasters.

Amazon did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday. The company has previously called the tornado strike and deaths “a devastating tragedy.” In remarks during the vigil last week, Bush called the disaster “preventable” and “avoidable.”

Amazon’s emergency procedures state, in bold text, that whenever a tornado warning has been issued or a tornado has been sighted nearby, everyone at the facility must take shelter until it is over, according to a copy of the procedures submitted to the Edwardsville Fire Department in October 2020 and obtained through a public records request.

The document specifically instructs workers not to leave the property during a “take shelter evacuation” event.

The emergency procedure plan is marked “Amazon Confidential — for Internal Use Only” and appears to apply to Amazon warehouses in North America.

It requires each facility to have an incident management team and lays out specific responsibilities for people on-site, including workers who are instructed to “walk, not run” to the nearest designated shelter area.

“The safety of the Amazon Associates must be considered first and foremost,” the document states in an appendix.

The plan requires shelter areas to be clearly marked and for a security manager to sound an “audible warning.” It instructs the incident commander to make sure that someone has secured loose items outside the building, if possible.

It is unclear whether all procedures were followed to the letter during the tornado that ripped into the Amazon warehouse on Dec. 10. One survivor said that the shelter he ran to on the north side of the building was marked with a large sign and that a manager directed him to make his way there quickly.

Amazon last week said the warehouse did not have a loudspeaker system, so in the minutes before the tornado struck, managers went around the building with megaphones ordering everyone to take shelter.

Amazon has been renting the warehouse since 2020, officials said last week. The building’s landlord is Gateway East 9B Owner LLC, Amazon spokeswoman Caitlin Polochak said.

The company said there were 46 people on the property when the storm hit — seven Amazon employees and 39 contractors who work for intermediary companies. Many of the contractors were delivery drivers, some of whom arrived back at the facility shortly before the tornado hit.

In their letter to Amazon chief executive Andy Jassy and Bezos, the executive chair, lawmakers asked whether the company required workers to remain on the job “despite the issuance of the tornado warning.”

“Did you provide any guidance or flexibility to workers and contractors regarding not coming into work or leaving work early given the tornado warning?” they asked.

“When were the last fire, tornado, and severe weather drills performed at the Edwardsville warehouse?” the letter reads. “What is the impact of your company’s high worker turnover on ensuring these trainings are up to date for all workers?”

The letter also asks whether Amazon modified its safety practices and standards after a tornado hit and partially collapsed an Amazon warehouse in Baltimore in 2018, killing two people.

And it asks what sort of “wind-related building code standards” the Edwardsville warehouse was built to meet.

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