A new report from the Center for Urban Economic Development (CUED) at the University of Illinois Chicago has found that 41% of Amazon workers have been injured on the job.
The study surveyed 1,484 Amazon workers about the impact of Amazon’s work intensity and monitoring on their health. The results come at a time when there is significant momentum among Amazon workers to unionize for better wages and working conditions, as well as media reports and government investigations citing Amazon’s culture of grueling working conditions and hyper-surveillance.
“The survey data indicate that how Amazon designs its processes—including extensive monitoring and the rapid pace of work—are contributing to a considerable physical and mental health toll, including injuries, burnout, and exhaustion,” said Dr. Beth Gutelius, the research director at CUED and a co-author of the report.
Workers surveyed in the study represented 451 facilities across 42 states. Of those who reported injuries, 61% reported experiencing “a sprain, strain, or tear,” with the next most common kinds of injuries being a “contusion or bruise” (27%) or a “cut or laceration” (20%). According to another study by the Strategic Organizing Center, workers at Amazon are injured more frequently and more severely than workers at other warehouses.
The results of CUED’s study align with investigation results from the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), which has cited Amazon for violations of basic safety standards at eight warehouse facilities in 2023 alone. OSHA found that Amazon warehouse workers were subject to a significant risk of low back injuries and musculoskeletal disorders due to the high frequency at which workers were required to lift packages and heavy items, work long hours, and often awkwardly bend and twist to maneuver products. OSHA has also found that Amazon failed to ensure injured employees received proper medical care as required by law.
John Fry worked as a warehouse associate at Amazon DYO2, a delivery station in New York City, from 2021 to 2022. After a few months of working at Amazon, regularly lifting heavy items as a warehouse associate, he started to get lower back pain.
“By the time I hit the year mark, it got to the point where low level back pain was common every day after work and then even on days where I wasn’t working,” Fry said. “That started to freak me out because I never had any back pain before I worked there.”
When he received a doctor’s note asking for him to be put on light duty, Fry was told there was no light duty available for him to do. Fry tried to do his old job more slowly and carefully, but the recurring back pain ultimately played a large role in his decision to leave Amazon. Fry still experiences back pain daily, even a year after leaving.
Fry attributes the frequency of injuries at Amazon to the breakneck speed required of employees. At Amazon, he saw coworkers get broken feet from packages falling on them and wrist and arm injuries from fast, repetitive motions. While he said Amazon implemented basic safety measures, the speed of work required made injuries inevitable.
“They give us safety shoes, which is good,” Fry said. “They give us gloves, which is good. They try to teach us how to lift, which is good. But fundamentally, none of these safety measures are going to decrease the amount of injuries if they keep making people work so fast.”
Warehouse workers at Amazon have tried to improve safety conditions for several years. In 2022, Amazon workers at the JFK8 warehouse in New York voted to form the first Amazon Labor Union. While other Amazon warehouses are non-unionized, some organizing committees of employees have been successful in advocating for improvements to workplace safety through petitions.
Workers at the DEW8 delivery station in Bellmawr, New Jersey, have been able to secure a number of safety improvements through petitions over the past few years. When warehouse associate Paul Blundell was hired at DEW8, Blundell said management prohibited workers from pressing the emergency stop button on the package conveyor belt even when it was overflowing, leaving boxes piling on the floor and creating a safety hazard for workers. In 2021, 78 workers signed a petition asking management to change this practice and make other safety improvements. While management did not meet with the workers who signed the petition as a group, they did start making changes asked for in the petition, including allowing workers to press the button to pick up fallen packages.
More recently, workers at DEW8 launched a petition asking for changes to ensure automated lines were run safely. While management agreed to the worker demands, employees were told that DEW8 was the only warehouse that adopted the proposed changes. Furthermore, none of what DEW8 has succeeded in winning has been put into writing or any kind of formal agreement. Without a contract, Amazon can take away safety concessions at any time.
“Our warehouse has become safer, but Amazon is still operating equipment and changing the work process in ways that are going to lead to even less safe conditions than already exist at the warehouse,” Blundell said.
Other workers have not seen the same success in obtaining safety improvements. Christine Manno, an employee at the STL8 Amazon fulfillment center in St. Peters, Missouri, has been injured on the job twice. In May 2022, she suffered a neck and back injury while trying to remove boxes she had warned management before were too heavy to be so high up.
“Amazon refuses to acknowledge safety issues when you bring it to their attention,” Manno said. “I know that because I brought several safety issues to their attention, one of which was the boxes that caused me to be injured.”
In July, Amazon released an update on safety conditions in its workplaces. The update listed a number of steps the company had taken to promote safety, including introducing height-adjustable workstations, making air conditioning and ice machines available to all delivery drivers, and using robots to automate package sorting and handling. It stated that it reduced its recordable incident rate (a metric used to measure the frequency of workplace injuries) by 23% from 2019 to 2022.
In a statement, Amazon said: “If anyone actually wants to know the facts, they can read the data that we publish each year and submit to OSHA, which shows that rates in our buildings have improved significantly and we’re slightly above the average in some areas and slightly below the average in others.”
Despite Amazon’s stated improvements, the CUED study finds that 52% of workers felt burned out from their time at Amazon, a number rising to 60% among workers who have been at Amazon for more than three years. Sixty-nine percent of workers had to take unpaid time off in the past month due to pain or exhaustion from work.
“This report shines a light on what my coworkers and I have been saying,” said Wendy Taylor, an Amazon warehouse worker in St. Peters, Missouri. “We have suffered injury after injury without receiving proper care. Amazon can deny mistreating a few workers, but how can they deny thousands of workers pointing to one thing: that the company is working us into an early grave?”