Amazon warehouse workers saw injury rates double. Then COVID hit. Inside a hidden safety crisis

By the time Amazon made its Christmas bonus offer, seasonal hire Mandeep Singh had already quit. Keeping up with the “hectic” pace of work at his Brampton-area warehouse was a struggle, and the long hours — upwards of 60 a week during holidays — were impossible to juggle with his other job.

But with peak ordering season in full swing, Amazon needed manpower. As December ushered in stricter lockdowns for Canadians, the e-commerce giant sent warehouse workers a reminder to stay home if they had flu-like symptoms. The same message offered a holiday incentive: a $ 1,000 weekly cash draw for those with perfect attendance.

“We need everyone’s ongoing support in delivering our customer promise,” the message said.

It’s a promise built on speed, ease and convenience. But new records obtained by the Star show its true toll on Amazon’s low-wage employees — and a growing safety problem documented through the company’s own accounting of injury and illness within its Canadian warehouses. It’s an issue Amazon has sought to dispute and downplay, sometimes at the expense of at-risk workers, according to hundreds of injury reports reviewed by the Star.

While Amazon’s injury record has received significant attention south of the border, its record in Canada is worse: last year, its injury rate was 15 per cent higher than the company’s U.S. average. In Toronto-area facilities, injury rates have more than doubled since 2016.

The data is based on Amazon’s internal safety records shared with the Star by the U.S.-based investigative journalism outlet Reveal, whose Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporting has detailed a growing safety crisis at the trillion-dollar company.

Responding to detailed questions from the Star, Amazon spokesperson Dave Bauer said health and safety was “top priority,” pointing to COVID-related precautions such as enhanced cleaning measures and providing those diagnosed with the virus two paid weeks off. Bauer said Amazon had also invested in technology, infrastructure and training to reduce injuries and “ensure the highest standards to keep our employees safe.”

“While any incident is one too many, we are continuously learning and improving our programs to prevent future incidents,” he said.

Amazon describes itself as a “force for progress,” which includes a commitment to a $ 16 minimum wage in Canada and “comprehensive” health benefits. The company says it uses a variety of metrics to assess workplace safety; in Ontario, its official injury rate, based on accepted claims at the workers’ compensation board, is on par with competitors.

But Amazon’s own internal safety records paint a far bleaker picture than its standing at the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). An analysis of hundreds of WSIB claims obtained by the Star through a Freedom of Information request reveals how Amazon aggressively disputes, challenges or undermines the severity of its workers’ injuries — a strategy that can reduce companies’ accident costs, along with the benefits injured workers ultimately receive.

While the Star has confirmed at least 25 COVID-19 cases among workers at one Brampton warehouse alone, Amazon will not confirm the number of frontline staff who have tested positive for the virus. Across Canada, it says it has invested $ 45 million in COVID safety precautions.

But despite its global profits tripling during the pandemic, some workplace policies have barely budged: across Canada, Amazon has rescinded a $ 2-an-hour pay bump for warehouse workers implemented earlier this year. Temporary staff do not have paid sick days. And disciplinary measures aimed at those deemed unproductive — initially paused as a COVID precaution — are back.

In interviews with the Star, four current and three former employees across the country described a shop floor where low-wage workers are not empowered to speak up — or slow down.

“It’s just constant,” said one. “Our bodies are disposable.”

Amazon workers and community allies demonstrate in front of founder Jeff Bezos's Manhattan residence in New York on Dec. 2

After three months as a temporary employee, Bobby Bueckert was on the brink of a permanent position at Amazon’s New Westminster warehouse on the banks of British Columbia’s Brunette River. Then she blew her rotator cuff.

Instead of landing a stable job at the 580,000-square-foot facility, Bueckert would end up in a protracted battle with her employer over the injury — one of 1,800 across Canada catalogued by Amazon over the past four years.

The internal records, obtained by Reveal and shared with the Star, conform to a standard safety metric in the U.S. based on injuries that are serious enough to require workers to miss time or perform modified duties. The data accounts for 11 Canadian warehouses between 2016 and 2019.

Reveal’s reporting has shown that Amazon’s rate of 7.7 injuries per 100 employees at its U.S. warehouses is nearly double the industry standard in America. Across Canada, Amazon’s injury rate last year was even higher — 9.1.

In 2016, the company’s warehouse in Delta, B.C., was the worst of any fulfilment centre across Canada and the U.S., with over 20 injuries per 100 workers. Amazon says it has one of the largest and most expensive workplace health and safety programs in the world — and by 2019, it successfully halved the injury rate at the Delta facility. In a letter to U.S. senators earlier this year, Amazon’s vice-president for public policy, Brian Huseman, described the company’s safety culture as one of “continuous improvement.”

But at its Toronto-area warehouses, its injury rates have doubled over the last four years, according to the company’s internal records. It’s a problem across all facilities, said Bueckert, born of a key Amazon tenet: speed.

“It puts everybody into this competition mode,” she said.

Bueckert said she received some safety training on her first day; around the warehouse, laminated posters reminded workers of hazards, and designated staff patrolled the floor, sometimes handing out tickets for safety lapses.

She was also under constant surveillance — down to being coached with a stopwatch on Amazon’s expected walking tempo on her 10-hour shifts. Bueckert’s scanner tracked every item she stowed in the warehouse’s massive serpentine rows of merchandise racks, feeding the information into Amazon’s data collection system that would determine her productivity rate.

Failure to “make rate” can trigger discipline. That rate is a moving target based on a particular department’s average performance: workers told the Star their required rates were as high as 200 boxes an hour.

Outside of designated breaks, the minutes spent not scanning items, including bathroom or water breaks, are calculated each shift to “allow managers to quickly assess their department’s top offenders,” according to internal documentation seen by the Star. Internal emails from one Canadian warehouse department show supervisors on one shift singling out the slowest worker three times. Amazon policy dictates that the poorest five per cent of performers receive “corrective action,” which can eventually lead to termination.

“You’d see people there one day and they weren’t the next. It’s either they were fired, or they left,” said Bueckert. “Because they couldn’t keep up with the count.”

Many were recent arrivals in Canada — “just needing work,” said Bueckert. Combined with constant cues to move faster, the toll on her colleagues troubled her.

Amazon spokesperson Dave Bauer said health and safety was "top priority," pointing to COVID-related precautions such as enhanced cleaning measures and providing those diagnosed with the virus two paid weeks off.

“People were working through these injuries.”

In 2018, Amazon’s worst accident year on record in Ontario, more than two-thirds of injuries were caused by overexertion or repetitive motion, according to claims filed to the WSIB. The records obtained by the Star provide rare insight into the hazards faced by warehouse staff, from a worker being struck in the head with an 18-pound Christmas tree to one who reported a cracked rib from repeated twisting.

Peter Smith, the scientific co-director at the Toronto-based Institute for Work and Health, said productivity and safety don’t need to be at odds. But his research has shown a concerning trend: workers who reported not having enough time to do their job safely were far more likely to feel uncomfortable speaking up about workplace risks. That is especially true of temporary hires and new Canadians.

“When productivity is put front and centre, there’s a tendency to cut corners,” Smith said.

One current warehouse worker who spoke to the Star on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal described Amazon as a sophisticated employer that “puts a fair bit of emphasis on avoiding the spectacular injuries that would end up in the news.”

“But shoulders, backs, elbows? That’s just the cost of doing business.”

The cost of Bueckert’s Amazon stint was long-term shoulder damage. It happened in the lead-up to Black Friday in 2017, the start of peak season when mandatory overtime can lead to 50- to 60-hour work weeks. As she lifted a table saw bound for delivery, Bueckert heard a crunch.

“I thought, oh. That didn’t feel right,” she recalls.

Bueckert says she went straight to her manager to report the injury, and then to AmCare, Amazon’s in-house medical team. There, she says she was told to finish her shift. The next day, she was in serious pain.

But when Bueckert filed a workers’ compensation claim, her employer downplayed the severity of her injury — even though her own doctor had told her to do “no work, no lifting, no nothing,” she says.

Records obtained from the WSIB show her experience is not isolated: in Ontario, Amazon disputed almost 80 per cent of serious injury claims filed between early 2018 and 2019.

The law says all injuries and illnesses that may be work-related must be reported to the WSIB through so-called Form 7s. Here, employers can note their objection or cast doubt on legitimacy. These tactics are not illegal. But they can make accessing benefits an uphill battle for workers — and save their employers money. Amazon says employees are encouraged to report all injuries and that it provides fair and unbiased evidence to the compensation board.

The Star reviewed all 303 injury claims provided by the WSIB, from February 2018 to the end of January 2019. In the majority of all cases — but especially when the injury was serious — the company told the board it objected to or questioned the claim, arguing repeatedly that there was “no proof of accident,” an “unclear mechanism of injury” or a “pre-existing condition.” The company also repeatedly faulted workers for “delays” in seeking medical attention.

But by their nature, the wear-and-tear injuries common at Amazon warehouses often develop insidiously over time with no clear starting point, said Michael Green, a Toronto-based lawyer with three decades’ experience representing injured workers. Many people may not initially realize they should see a doctor, or are told they don’t need to, he said.

One worker at an Amazon warehouse in the GTA, who spoke to the Star on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said he was told by his supervisor to keep working after injuring his arm as he attempted to stow items at his expected rate — around 160 an hour. When he visited AmCare, he said he was told to just take a painkiller.

The next day, the pain was too severe to work. When he returned three days later, he said a member of Amazon’s health and safety team asked him to explain the injury. But when he filed a workers’ compensation claim, he said Amazon told the board he was not able to identify how he got injured.

“That was totally false,” said the worker.

Months after filing his claim, he is still waiting for it to be accepted.

Green described Amazon’s efforts to undermine injury claims as “aggressive.”

“The incentive to avoid injuries, in many situations, comes in conflict with Amazon’s need for speed, which is the basis of its business model,” he said. “Contesting claims aggressively is consistent with the model.”

Amazon’s serious injury rate at the WSIB is on par with similar employers in the province, and has increased from 0.75 to 1.17 per 100 workers over the past four years. In Ontario, injuries are only classified as serious if the employee loses time on the job, whereas the U.S. benchmark also factors in injuries requiring modified duties.

Employers must pay WSIB premiums based on how risky their sector is and their own safety performance. If serious injuries go up, so can the employer’s insurance premiums.

The goal of that system is to incentivize employers to reduce accidents, especially acute ones. But critics say it motivates some employers to hide injuries, dispute their severity or offer inappropriate modified work so the injury won’t be officially counted as serious.

In one Amazon injury claim reviewed by the Star, a Brampton-area worker suffering from eye pain was taken to hospital in an ambulance and later received a doctor’s note saying he could not return to work until assessed by an ophthalmologist. But Amazon argued the worker should not receive loss-of-earnings benefits because it had offered him a “suitable” modified job.

“Worker is stating he is off due to pain,” Amazon’s claim reads. “Pain is subjective.”

Four workers who sustained injuries at Canadian Amazon warehouses told the Star they were given modified duties that ranged from handing out bags of chips at staff appreciation lunches to tasks that required bending or lifting and were still physically painful.

“It’s cheaper (for employers) to have people piling paper clips than being at home getting better,” said Green.

The trillion-dollar company, which employs 21,000 staff across all its Canadian operations, is also saving money in other ways. In Ontario, the WSIB does not classify Amazon fulfilment centres as warehouses, but groups them in with “specialized retail” — a sector where insurance premiums are significantly lower than the riskier warehousing industry. Amazon did not respond to the Star’s questions about why its warehouses are lumped in with stores like Costco.

David Newberry, a community legal worker with the Toronto-based Injured Workers’ Consultants, called the classification “scandalous.”

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“I can’t imagine the amount of cost savings that would result in” for Amazon.

For workers, the effects of overexertion or repetitive motion can be just as costly as a sudden, traumatic incident, said Green.

He put it this way: a professional baseball pitcher gets hit in the arm by a ball. It looks horrible, but the pitcher “almost always recovers in their performance.” Conversely, years of throwing the ball at high speeds cause repetitive strain injuries that are “regularly career threatening.”

“They don’t look like much. The pitcher is just pitching,” said Green. “And then one day, they can’t anymore.”

The pandemic has only deepened Canadians’ reliance on Amazon, whose profits globally tripled this year. For warehouse workers, COVID introduced a new element to the job: fear.

As Ontario entered its first lockdown, workers in the GTA told the Star that daily departmental meetings of 200 or more staff initially continued on Amazon’s shop floor. They sent photos of packed lunchrooms and employees working in close proximity.

Since then, departmental meetings have been cancelled, and cleaning regimens and access to protective gear have improved at Amazon’s facilities, said Gagandeep Kaur, an organizer with the Warehouse Workers’ Centre, which advocates for better working conditions in Peel’s expansive logistics sector. But Amazon will not confirm how many staff in Canada have contracted COVID.

Gagandeep Kaur, an organizer with the Warehouse Workers' Centre, which advocates for better working conditions in Peel's expansive logistics sector. She said despite moves by Amazon to combat COVID-19 at its facilities, the core risk factor for injury, and now illness, remains unchanged: precarious work.

In May, the WSIB’s compliance team contacted Amazon as part of its “pandemic response education” efforts after “allegations (were) noted that this employer may not be reporting COVID-related exposures,” according to documents obtained by the Star through a Freedom of Information request.

“Based on the facts shared during the outreach, it was determined that Amazon was in compliance with reporting and no further action was necessary,” a WSIB spokesperson said.

As of November, the company had not registered a single COVID claim. The Star has confirmed at least 25 cases of workers testing positive at one Brampton warehouse alone.

Farah Mawani, a social epidemiologist at Unity Health’s MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, said transparency about where COVID cases are happening is essential — for the public to understand why low-income, racialized communities have been harder hit, and for policy makers to do something about it.

“If we are not implementing any workplace interventions, we’re never going to get the pandemic under control,” she said.

Amazon says it has made “significant” process changes, including allowing workers extra time to wash their hands and sanitize their work area, and staggering work stations to promote social distancing. But Kaur said the core risk factor for injury, and now illness, remains unchanged: precarious work.

Amazon has reinstated its policy of penalizing its slowest performers, which was initially suspended as a pandemic safety precaution. It has eliminated its $ 2-an-hour pay bump implemented between March and May. It has rescinded a measure implemented early in the pandemic to give workers unlimited unpaid time off when needed. While permanent employees accrue four paid sick days over time, temporary employees still don’t get any. At one GTA warehouse, some 40 per cent of staff are temporary, according to internal documents seen by the Star.

Amazon did not respond to the Star’s questions about what percentage of its overall workforce is temporary — but across the U.S. and Canada, it’s hiring more than 100,000 seasonal employees to meet increased demand. On top of the $ 1,000 weekly cash draw for workers with perfect attendance during this year’s holiday season, the company is also offering a $ 300 bonus to those who don’t miss a day through December.

For Mawani, the pandemic has exposed more forcefully than ever the risks shouldered by workers who “don’t really have the power to challenge health and safety practices.”

Those conditions are not exclusive to Amazon: low-wage work is on the rise across the country. Over 80 per cent of low-wage workers do not have paid sick leave in the Toronto area. The warehousing sector, which employs 30,000 people in the GTA, is often a landing pad for new Canadians; only 12 per cent of employees in the industry are unionized.

Former senior vice-president of Amazon Web Services Tim Bray said Amazon did not cause those problems — but it is a glaring symptom of them.

In an interview, the Canadian-born engineer called Amazon one of the best-managed companies he has ever worked for. But he said there is a troubling side to its unparalleled success — one that demands systemic change. Earlier this year, he quit over the firing of six U.S.-based warehouse workers after they raised concerns about working conditions during the pandemic.

“If we don’t like what (Amazon is) doing, the right thing to do is not to yell at them to be nice,” he said. “The right thing to do is change the rules.

“The core propositions of Amazon retail are to have a large selection, decent prices and fast delivery. Nobody has ever disliked any of those things,” he added.

“My disapproval comes in where you do the arithmetic to count the cost (that is) borne by the people in the equation who don’t have any power.”

Bobby Bueckert agrees.

“I think they’re good at selling this business,” she said. “But once you’re in behind those doors, it’s a different story.”

2019 injury rates at Canadian Amazon warehouses

(Calculated by number injuries or illness resulting in days away from work or modified duties per 100 workers)

YYZ1 Mississauga — 7.3

YYZ2 Milton, Ont. — 13.4

YYZ3 Brampton — 10.4

YYZ4 Brampton — 6.8

YYZ7 Bolton, Ont. — 6.2

YOW1 Navan, Ont. — 12.1

YVR2 Delta, B.C. — 9.9

YVR3 New Westminster, B.C. — 15.5

YVR 4 Delta, B.C. — 9.3

YYC1 Rocky View County, Alta. — 11.1

Source: Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting

With data analysis from Andrew Bailey

This story was completed with information from Reveal’s Reporting Networks. revealnews.org/network

Sara Mojtehedzadeh

TORONTO STAR