In his annual letter to shareholders on Thursday, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy said that he has taken “a deep look across the company,” for the last few months, going “business by business, invention by invention” to reassess everything in order to steady the e-commerce giant. Revenues are down for the year and the company has laid off tens of thousands of workers after growing at an astronomical clip to satisfy COVID-19-era consumer demand.
“We had to double the fulfillment center footprint that we’d built over the prior 25 years and substantially accelerate building a last-mile transportation network that’s now the size of UPS,” Jassy writes, “all in the span of about two years.”
Thursday’s letter acknowledges this caused some hiccups. Or in Jassy’s terminology: “There was a lot of optimization needed to yield the intended productivity.” He says that Amazon has now “scrutinized every process path in our fulfillment centers and transportation network” and used what they’ve gleaned to redo “scores of processes and mechanisms.” He also brags it’s working: For the last couple quarters, Amazon has recorded both productivity gains and cost reductions.
However, what Jassy’s letter neglects to mention is scrutiny of Amazon’s high number of warehouse injuries. In the lead-up to every shareholder meeting since 2018, a labor union coalition called the Strategic Organizing Center (SOC) has released a report tracking Amazon fulfillment center accidents, based on the federal work-related injury data Amazon submits to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Every year, this report claims that Amazon jobs are once again more dangerous than similar warehouse jobs, and 2023’s report—which looks at data from 2022—is no different: It argues that Amazon accounted for over 50% of “serious injuries” industrywide, despite employing just 36% of U.S. warehouse workers. “While Amazon has enjoyed meteoric growth over the past few years,” the SOC says when introducing the data, “the company has failed to make meaningful progress in terms of worker safety.”
“Serious injury” is the SOC’s own term—the government doesn’t officially classify injuries in this way—but regardless, Amazon’s overall rate has beaten the industry average for years. For 2022, fulfillment centers posted 38,609 total recordable injuries that required either time away from work or medical treatment beyond first aid. This works out to 6.95 injuries per 100 full-time-equivalent Amazon workers (FTEs), a rate that hasn’t fluctuated much. Here’s what it has looked like over the last few years, based on our analysis of Amazon’s submissions to the OSHA:
- 2017: 7.48 injuries per 100 FTEs
- 2018: 7.85 injuries per 100 FTEs
- 2019: 9.01 injuries per 100 FTEs
- 2020: 6.59 injuries per 100 FTEs
- 2021: 7.86 injuries per 100 FTEs
- 2022: 6.95 injuries per 100 FTEs
According to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual rates for the warehousing and transportation industry were 4.4 injuries per 100 full-time employees in 2019, 4.0 in 2020, and 4.6 in 2021.
“The safety and health of our employees is, and always will be, our top priority, and any claim otherwise is inaccurate,” Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel told Fast Company in a statement. “While we know we have more work to do, the truth is clearly outlined in our safety report and we encourage anyone to both tour our facilities and read our safety report.”
Amazon has criticized the SOC’s reporting methods, arguing that the most useful way to gauge safety progress is by looking at what OSHA calls the Lost Time Injury Rate (LTIR), which is the number of lost-time injuries sustained in a workplace over a certain time period, divided by the total hours worked in that period. It does not factor in the severity of injuries or the amount of time lost due to each.
Amazon argues that by the LTIR metric it’s made measurable progress, and is even below the warehousing industry average. According to the safety report that Nantel mentioned, Amazon’s LTIR has fallen by 53% since 2019.
Amazon and the SOC have been accusing the other of citing data in bad faith for years, and this year’s SOC report pushes back, arguing that the reason for this improvement was “presumably because many injured workers were given light duty assignments instead of time off work to recover,” which it calls an “outcome of the company’s longstanding strategy . . . to discourage workers from taking time off work to recover in order to reduce its workers compensation costs.”
Asked about workplace-safety initiatives that were implemented in the past 12 months, Amazon noted several examples. Tables were introduced with adjustable heights so employees can bend and reach less far. Comfier ladders were acquired, and also conveyors were redesigned to reduce back and arm strain. Various other tasks were digitized to make them safer, such as eliminating scanners to give employees use of both hands again. A robot called Robin was loosed on the floor to tackle highly repetitive tasks.
Back in September 2021—seven months after Jeff Bezos declared Amazon would become “Earth’s safest place to work,” and seven months after Amazon acknowledged for the first time that workers do sometimes have to pee in bottles because they can’t take bathroom breaks—Jassy gave an interview to CNBC where he promised that fulfillment center employee safety was “priority number one” at Amazon.
Half a year later, in his inaugural annual shareholder letter, he also doubled down on fixing warehouse injuries. The rates were “a little higher than the average,” he conceded, before adding that Amazon doesn’t “seek to be average. We want to be best in class.” He explained that after being elevated to CEO, “I spent significant time in our fulfillment centers and with our safety team” searching vainly for “a silver bullet that could change the [injury] numbers quickly.”
Instead, once a corporation reaches Amazon’s in scale, he discovered that “it takes rigorous analysis, thoughtful problem-solving, and a willingness to invent to get to where you want,” insinuating that this hustle would be applied to improving Amazon’s safety standards.
Jassy even mentioned some promising solutions that Amazon was testing out: workplace rotations to prevent workers from sitting in one place doing the same repetitive motion, wearables that warn when they’re moving in unsafe ways, upgraded shoes that provide superior toe protection, plus a suite of training programs that would teach them proper body mechanics, wellness, and other safety practices.
Thursday’s shareholder letter hints at Amazon’s tenacity when it puts its mind to something—the result of “invest[ing] in long-term inventions that change what’s possible.” “Chip development is a good example,” offers Jassy, who refers readers to last year’s letter to demonstrate considerable progress since 2022 on the Graviton computer chip.
However, he never mentions “safety” in the letter, or even the word “workers.” In a sentence toward the middle, he does applaud the hard work of the “hundreds of thousands of Amazonians.”