St. Louis-area Amazon workers say they still don’t have tornado protection, 6 months after deaths
Updated at 4:10 p.m. May 26 with comment from Amazon
In the half-year since six Amazon workers died after one of the company’s Edwardsville facilities collapsed when a tornado hit it, St. Louis-area warehouse workers say the response to subsequent severe weather has hardly improved.
The tornado sirens and other alerts across St. Louis and St. Louis and St. Charles counties during last week’s severe weather exposed how little has changed, said Jacob Frankenreiter, who's worked at a facility in St. Peters for about three years.
“We were all confused on what to actually do,” he said. “Once the alerts went off, management had no idea what to do. It took them an extra 10 to 15 minutes to finally call, ‘OK, go take shelter.’”
Last week’s storm produced weaker tornadoes than the one in Edwardsville last year, but Frankenreiter said he didn’t feel safe in the location where workers in his building were instructed to shelter.
“We were crowded in the same area. If the building was to come down, it still would have hit us,” he said. “It’s just so the first responders know where to find all the bodies.”
Workers at Amazon’s other facilities in the region describe similar confusion and sluggish responses when the National Weather Service issued the tornado warning.
“Zero response in that moment,” said J Lopez, a worker in one of Amazon’s Hazelwood facilities. “Plenty of confusion around where we should be. Not even sure if the leadership knows because it’s a different direction every time.”
Lopez and Frankenreiter were at a rally in Hazelwood on Wednesday calling for better working conditions in Amazon facilities in the region.
Last month, the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration issued a hazard alert letter in response to the warehouse collapse in Edwardsville.
The letter includes recommendations for how the company can improve worker safety during extreme weather, such as ensuring that all workers at a building know where to shelter and that facilities have site-specific emergency plans accounting for local weather hazards.
In response to questions about how quickly workers should take shelter in the event of an emergency and how many of the company's facilities in tornado-prone areas have formal shelters, an Amazon spokesperson referred to a statement released after the OSHA investigation that said the company's buildings have emergency plans that identify exit routes and shelter areas and that employees receive emergency response training throughout the year.
Both Lopez and Frankenreiter have had tornado drills in their respective warehouses, which only started after the deaths in Edwardsville, Frankenreiter said.
“There’s no actual real safety measure,” he said. “It’s just to make themselves look good.”
To Lopez, the drills appeared to add to the confusion during an actual emergency because they included finishing work instead of focusing on employee safety, he said.
“You have people that they’ve been coached to sign out of their station and be concerned with basically Amazon’s belongings,” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense to me. The response should simply be to seek shelter immediately.”
Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.