In the span of a month this summer, four Amazon warehouse workers have died in separate incidents. While the details of each death are still forthcoming, the fatalities shine an even stronger spotlight on a common complaint about Amazon: that it requires a brutal pace of work and puts employees at risk of injury and overheating.
A range of circumstances surround the deaths. Rafael Reynaldo Mota Frias, 42, reportedly died of a heart attack in Carteret, New Jersey, as Prime Day was underway on July 13. Another worker, Rodger Boland, died after falling from a short ladder and hitting his head in Robbinsville, New Jersey. Alex Carillo, 22, died six days after an Aug. 1 forklift crash in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
A fourth worker, Eric Vadinsky, died after a workplace incident in Monroe Township, New Jersey, on Aug. 4. The deaths are all under investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has six months to release its findings.
Amazon expressed condolences to all the families of the deceased. "Each of these tragic incidents have affected our teams greatly, and we are providing resources for families and employees who need them," said Amazon spokesman Sam Stephenson. "Our investigations are ongoing and we're cooperating with OSHA, which is conducting its own reviews of the events, as it often does in these situations."
The investigations come at a time when Amazon already faces probes from federal and state regulators on workplace safety as well as worker pushback against what they say are dangerously hot work spaces. OSHA opened a broad investigation that will examine working conditions at Amazon warehouses in three US cities: Chicago, Orlando and New York City. Additionally, a group of workers walked off the job at an Amazon air hub in San Bernardino, California, in August, protesting hot working conditions and pay.
The deaths also come as people reexamine the role of Amazon in their lives in light of dangerous working conditions reported by news outlets, advocates and workers themselves. A group of 70 TikTok influencers signed onto a pledge in August promising to close down their Amazon storefronts and wish lists and to avoid entering into new agreements with Amazon to monetize their videos when users click through to Amazon's marketplace.
Called out by the TikTokers: reports of excessive heat in warehouses and in trucks that workers must load and unload in the sun, in addition to Amazon's response to union efforts in its warehouses. A photo shared by More Perfect Union, a workers' rights group, shows the cargo area of an Amazon truck registering an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit (63 degrees Celsius).
"Amazon is treating its workers like crap," TikToker @asianlefty said in a video pointing out worker complaints of hot work spaces and limited water, adding that he was joining the People Over Prime Pledge.
Amazon spokesman Stephenson pointed out that the company's warehouses have climate control. "Our teams are trained to follow robust safety procedures when operating during warmer weather, and our policies meet or exceed industry standards and OSHA guidance," he said.
Preventing future deaths in warehouses
It's hard to draw broad conclusions from four deaths, said Eric Frumin, director of health and safety at the union-affiliated Strategic Organizing Center, adding that warehouse deaths are statistically rare throughout the industry.
Still, workplace safety experts say the deaths raise questions.
"One workplace fatality is too many," said Marissa Baker, assistant professor at the University of Washington's department of environmental and occupational health sciences.
These are also not the first fatalities Amazon has seen in the last 12 months. While it's unclear exactly how many Amazon workers have died in the company's warehouses over the years, five employees and a delivery driver employed by Amazon's contractor died in a collapsed warehouse during a tornado in December.
While OSHA investigated the incident and required Amazon to review its severe weather policies, the deaths don't appear in two OSHA datasets that collect information on fatalities. When asked by CNET, OSHA didn't provide information for why the deaths weren't recorded in its datasets. In a statement, Amazon said it reports all deaths to OSHA in accordance with the law.
In general, both fatalities and injuries are undercounted, Baker said. "It doesn't mean that the data we do have should be ignored or can't be relied on," she said. But she added there needs to be more standardization in recording injuries and deaths at work.
Frumin, the health and safety director at the Strategic Organizing Center, added that OSHA investigations must be thorough to create prevention plans for the future.
When looking into Boland's death in Robbinsville, he said, investigators have to ask why someone fell off a three-foot ladder in the first place. Even if a similar fall doesn't lead to someone's death in the future, it could still cause serious injury. Regulators in the state of Washington have said Amazon workers often skip using tools like step stools, or use them unsafely, because they fear they'll be penalized if they slow down enough to use them correctly.
For Mota Frias, who died of cardiac arrest on Prime Day, investigators will have to look at whether heat and the pace of work made his medical emergency worse.
Amazon has denied responsibility for his death. Company spokesman Stephenson said the death "was related to a personal medical condition." Amazon workers told the Daily Beast that the area where Mota Frias worked was dangerously hot, but Stephenson said claims that heat was a factor are false. OSHA will also make a determination on the question, Stephenson said, adding, "we fully expect that it will reach the same conclusion."
A heart attack on the job can be work-related, even if it stems from an underlying health condition, Frumin said. Additionally, he said, workers who fear losing their jobs will often work through health scares.
Frumin also believes it's worth looking into the fact that the death happened on Prime Day, when advocates say increased production demands lead to higher injury rates.
"That is a big alarm," Frumin said.
Correction, 10:10 a.m. PT: Rafael Reynaldo Mota Frias died on July 13.