Shared publicly  - 
 
I like to fact check stories. It's kind of a thing with me.

A few days ago, a newspaper in Pennsylvania reported that Amazon was forcing employees to work to the point of collapse in high heat, and that an emergency room doctor had to notify OSHA. http://goo.gl/RtNAM

Amazon's PR department got out and said:

I. 'the health and safety of our workers is our first priority'
II. '"On June 3, 2011, the Lehigh Valley area experienced unusual, extremely high temperatures...' http://goo.gl/4nH2v
III. 'July 2011 was a highly unusual month and set records for the hottest temperatures during any single calendar month in cities across the East Coast.' http://goo.gl/kwuNE (I also got this response from Amazon customer service)

Well, I can't check the first, but I can check the second and third claims.

When I read the Amazon story, one thing that came up again and again was that Amazon kept their loading dock doors closed during the summer.

Indoor loading docks, especially ones in warehouses, become ovens on hot days. I know – I used to unload trucks on an indoor dock in New England in the summer. Summers in southern New England and Pennsylvania are hot and humid (and I'm grateful to not have to endure them anymore!)

There are two ways to keep the heat down on a loading dock in summer. One's expensive, and one's cheap. The expensive solution? 1) install insulation and a massive AC system. The cheap one? 2) open the garage doors so you have ventilation.

For an example of (1), check out any CostCo in California. Go inside and look up at the ceiling. You'll see white padded insulation up high - everywhere. You'll also see massive air conditioning units, the big grey ducts that hang down. CostCo doesn't get hot unless something's broken. CostCo runs a warehouse right.

Now, perhaps Amazon didn't have (1) sufficient AC and insulation - it seems that way - but the place where I think they really messed up is that they didn't (2) open the dock doors.

Back to fact checking: Amazon's two claims above are:

1) June 3 was unusually hot.

2) July was record setting 'across New England.'

None of the news articles fact checked what the weather was like at the warehouse on those time periods, apparently.

So I did.

The warehouse is in Lehigh Valley / Allentown, Pennsylvania.

On June 3, the high temperature was 75º F http://goo.gl/RxJRj (Weather Underground) [update: NOAA says 77ºF at the airport nearby http://imgur.com/zEAUt ]

For the month of July, not a single day in Allentown set a record. July 1 was 82F, 16º below the record. http://goo.gl/qWMml

So was July 2. It reached 87F that day, 15º below the record. http://goo.gl/ly4An

In fact, you can see on the monthly graph for July that only two days broke 95F. But let's look at a sample of days from the rest of July:

July 7: http://goo.gl/FcUKt :10 degrees below record
July 14: http://goo.gl/EjuoF : 16 degrees below record
July 21: http://goo.gl/QMcOm : the hottest day in July 2011, 98ºF, 3 degrees below record

Looking further, every day of the month was below record, and of the five days I looked at, four were 10 or more degrees below.

Amazon is then falsely claiming record high temperatures - acts of god - are the issue. So it's then the building and its management that's left.

I cannot fact check that their warehouse design and operating practices led directly to the heat collapse of their employees, but that's how I'd bet.


[Originally shared with friends, reposted public by request. Added cites and made minor corrections to quotes. Made simple improvements to the prose]
77
48
Sebastian Wiers's profile photoRuth Flagg's profile photoRalph H's profile photoKathy E. Gill's profile photo
29 comments
 
I'm glad you reposted because it's been on my mind. What I've read is that other Amazon warehouses routinely opened their bay doors on warm days. It's not clear if that was sufficient for worker comfort, but there's no documentation, at this time, of heat-related medical issues at any of the other Amazon facilities. It's safe to say that management heads will roll at this particular warehouse. What's not clear is the impact that this should have on labor laws. This is 2011, and I'm in awe of the fact that this can happen at all.
 
This is first class journalism. Too bad though that there isn't an editorial desk to call Amazon's PR type a liar.
 
Doesn't it just get under your skin when PR doesn't just take liberty with the truth, but outright lies--and there are no consequences? Perhaps management heads will roll, I really hope so because I like amazon. And if I just made stuff up like that (yeah, the servers are up and not hacked! (while in fact i knew they were)) i would get an instant Boot to the Head.
 
Buildings do retain heat, so it's possible a record long run of substantially hot temperatures, rather than any single record-setting day, would make things hotter than usual. But this doesn't excuse the bad management it takes to not run a warehouse properly, or at the very least to not allow employees to go home on days it's too hot to work.
P Tufts
 
Thanks for the tip, Radley. In an earlier draft I wondered if Weather Underground had accurate data.

If a more authoritative source contradicts their numbers, I'll correct the post.
 
Thanks for doing this.

And feel free to fact check the first one by talking to the workers. I'm sure they'd be more than happy to talk to someone who is actually serious about wanting to know what happened.
 
+P Tufts NOAA does have historic information and I'd trust their record keeping over WUnderground's PWS stations. I can't seem to get at June 3 for Allentown specifically (I may be misreading the forms), but the monthly summaries show May had a highest temp of 93 (normally 88) and June had a highest temp of 96 (normally 93). Both under record, but add on relative humidity and they're clearly hot enough to cause issues in even a well kept steel box building over a 2+ month time span if the workers aren't drinking water, etc.

http://www.weather.gov/climate/index.php?wfo=phi
 
Huh. When I worked at the Fed-Ex plant in Nashville (March - Nov 2007 for those who want to check the weather), we just called it "the South", not "poor working conditions". Yeah, you got hot- summers in TN are like that, eh?. You got soaked with sweat, in fact. If you had half a brain, you drank more water than you sweat out. Sure, we had a good number of fans- at least one per trailer. But air conditioning? LOL.

If you were like me, you did this after riding 10 miles on a bike, then rode home again, and got in good enough shape to pass some cars. Not bad work at 36, considering my heart surgery 4 years earlier.

Yeah, you can blame the building, blame the management. Or you can think maybe some guy had a habit of going out drinking, came in after shaking of a hangover, didn't drink enough water, and wonders of wonders, he felt dizzy and got sick. We had plenty of guys (and some girls) like that at the pant; nobody blamed management for that. How about some fact checking on that front?

The main complaint at our plant was the SHORT hours. Fed-Ex will only work you 38 hours a week (except maybe around x-mas). Kept overtime pay down to nothing, but it was also good for safety. Maybe Amazon has different policies, but given the economics of the industry, I can only see one reason for that (those being union regs; UPS is a whole 'nother story, I've done both).
P Tufts
 
+Chris Sexton, thanks for the link. It looks from the WU page for June 3 that they're using NWS/METARS weather station KABE at the airport.

So far, I too have only been able to find the source data via the gov. through May.

I don't doubt the day was humid, the entire summer can be brutal. I was only fact checking Amazon's statements about the temperature.

If this was the record breaker Amazon says it was, then the reports that they kept the dock doors - a great source of ventilation - shut allegedly due to theft concerns - really are serious.
P Tufts
 
+Jim Moskowitz Thank you. I paid for June and July for the Lehigh Valley / Allentown station [1]

For June 3, the NOAA reports a maximum temperature of 77ºF. That's two degrees higher than the WU station's 75ºF

Amazon's claim was: On June 3, 2011, the Lehigh Valley area experienced unusual, extremely high temperatures

I'm now checking the July numbers.

[1] The station is: LEHIGH VALLEY INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (14737) ALLENTOWN , PA, from the National Oceanographic and Atmosphere Administration's Quality Controlled Local Climatological Data. http://cdo.ncdc.noaa.gov/
 
Just got the same response from Amazon -- unusually hot weather, and we took care of everybody, and we might get air conditioners. Not convincing.
P Tufts
+
1
2
1
 
Here are the July NOAA numbers for the Lehigh Valley / Allentown Station [1]. Of the five days I quoted from WU, the NOAA weather station is within 2º of those numbers (2º hotter on 3 days, the same on the remaining 2). NOAA's monthly data shows that the first half of the month was in the 80s, then the daily maximum temperatures rose to 100 and 104 on July 21 and July 22.

Here's a histogram for July of the maximum temperature by range and the number of days in that range.

80 - 89: **************
90 - 99: ***********
100+...: **

Amazon's claim is: July 2011 was a highly unusual month and set records for the hottest temperatures during any single calendar month in cities across the East Coast

Here's a comparison of the numbers I used for July from Weather Underground to the new NOAA numbers:

July 1: NOAA high temp 84F, WU high 82F
July 2: NOAA high 87F, WU high 87F
July 7: NOAA high 91F, WU high 89F
July 14: NOAA high 84F, WU high 84F
July 21: NOAA high 100F, WU high 100F 98F

Looking at the NOAA chart, which has all the days in one place, it appears that July 21 - 23 were the hot days. Amazon says July 2011 was a highly unusual month and set records for the hottest temperatures during any single calendar month in cities across the East Coast

This claim does not mention Lehigh Valley / Allentown, PA, where the plant is, but clearly implies that Allentown also set record high temperatures for most if not all of the month.

The data however shows that most of the month was in the 80s and well below daily records, if the WU historic records are accurate. So far, every temperature I looked at in the post is within 2 degrees of the NOAA numbers for their station, so I'm inclined to believe the WU record data is also accurate absent other information.

[1] The station is: LEHIGH VALLEY INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (14737) ALLENTOWN , PA, from the National Oceanographic and Atmosphere Administration's Quality Controlled Local Climatological Data. http://cdo.ncdc.noaa.gov/

[Update: in this comment, I originally said the NOAA was higher on two days. It was actually three.]
P Tufts
 
+Lisa Chabot I think you're right. I could see how, like you said, a long run of hotter than normal days could result in unusually high temperatures inside the building. And, same as you, I would then wonder - if the conditions became so bad inside the building, why not give people the day off? At least one report I read said that instead, employees who left work and didn't get a doctor's note were given demerits.

When you're working an hourly job at a warehouse, taking time off to get a doctor's note, well, I imagine that could be a half-day of lost wages just for the appointment.
P Tufts
 
+Sebastian Wiers No doubt AC is unusual in a warehouse. The dock I worked on, the store had AC, but the dock, yeah, it was an oven. But Amazon seems to have kept that building sealed, and had people working on the second and third floors of the warehouse. It sounds like a hot box - it sounds brutal. They then increased quotas during the period, and punished employees for taking the day off on hot days. I write about this more in my comment on the BoingBoing article above.

http://boingboing.net/2011/09/21/amazon-worker-safety-and-fact-checking.html#comment-317249235

All I can say is – people need to take care of themselves, sure, but the employer should reconsider the quotas and operations when they've got ambulances lined up next to the warehouse because of all the people collapsing.

Hey, I would love to hear what you think about UPS. I have a relative who drove for them, and he had a good experience. How were they compared to FedEx?
 
While not good, I don't think Amazon was all that out of line - I've been in plenty of warehouses, and have yet to find one with AC that wasn't a fridge/freezer/food/beverage type facility. Some of these places are hitting a couple hundred thousand SF - that's a lot to cool. They get hot during the summer, big time, I wouldn't say that Amazon was doing anything that didn't match the industry (for better or worse, just stating) - except maybe not opening up the dock doors, I'm surprised they didn't as that is a consistent item that I've seen in warehouses in the summer. Worst one I was in was a manufacturing plant that made plastic film - in the summer - it was easily in the 100's by the machines - then they had an upper penthouse above them, that was hot as hell.
P Tufts
 
+Jim Rundle I don't know about other warehouses' practices, except sure they get hot, but area staffing firms in PA claimed that workers who couldn't make quota at Amazon worked out fine at other warehouses.

So I think the issue was - yes, warehouses can get hot, but when they do, you ease up on people. The Morning Call article suggests that Amazon didn't stop handing out demerits for employees who had to leave due to heat until OSHA stepped in, and OSHA stepped in after the local Emergency Room called them. Pre-OSHA visit, a worker would get 1.5 demerits for leaving early, for heat or otherwise, and 6 demerits meant no more job.

One former employee also talked about quotas doubling overnight during his employment, and looking at his quota, it seemed he would have a very hard time fitting in time to drink water while meeting his quota (failure to meet quota also resulted in firing).

So it looks like there was a culture where policies - a buttoned up warehouse, high quotas, firing for failing to keep up the same pace mandated in cooler months, firing for leaving due to heat - all could have contributed to people collapsing.

By the way, I looked at the facilities on Google Maps. The roofs look black, which couldn't have helped, but there appear to be bays - a lot of bays - on both sides of the buildings. They could have had some cross ventilation and essentially opened up two entire walls of the facility, which I think would have made a big difference.
 
agreed on the employee aspect - I was just looking at it architecturally. Upsetting that OSHA has to get involved so that employees get a fair shake, but I guess that's what its there for, so that was good.

FWIW: The bays on both sides will be inbound/outbound most likely; Black roofs indicate an older roof as 97% of the roofs these days are white. I've seen warehouses put big fans in front of the doors or go with the HVLS fans (high volume/low speed) which keeps the air moving too to help out.
 
Long and I didn't read the comments before I wrote this. You seem mostly concerned with Amazon fibbing about the temperature. The buildings are normally cement, and AC is out of the question. Air flow would be nice, but difficult to do.
I worked at Amazon for three months, knowing, full well, before I started, that it was a terrible job. I live in Fernley, Nevada, and Amazon is one of the biggest employers here in town.
I quit after I peed my pants.
Employees at Amazon are meat or robots. They are required to preform at a certain level or be fired. This level is based on a stop watch used to find the top percentage (I don't know what that percentage is, but I do know that only about 3% can hit it consistently) There is one week training to start and then (and these number are rough numbers, I haven't worked there in 6 years) two weeks to learn the routine and then one or two weeks to be up to speed. And I mean speed! There are three breaks during the day, and they let you know they are doing you a favor by letting you have two 15 minute breaks rather than the required 10 minute breaks. But they also require you to be back to work on the 15 minute mark. Each person must clock in and out for each break, and the line is long at the time clock. So, part of your break is spent waiting in line to clock in or out. You also have to pass through a metel detector with a security guard posted to hand scan you if you set off the alarm. Your box cutter can set off the alarm. Everybody has to wait behind you if you set off the alarm. It's just like a court house or airport. You can not leave a little early, clock out, return a little early and clock in, you must all leave at the same time. There two hundred people working in this facility normally, and double that easily, around Christmas. There are multiple time clocks, and two secuirty check points, but there are still long lines. During your break you pee, get water (no other beverage allowed, and the water must be in a clear bottle!) eat and deal with any HR or phone calls or bill paying or any other normal break responsibilities. Then return to your position and be working at full speed the minute break is over. If you aren't, you will not "make your numbers". Lunch is 30 minutes, BTW. The warehouse is 1,000,000 square feet of cement. It is divided into Nevada and Utah. Nevada is on the west side, Utah is on the east side. They are just names, there is no other reason for naming them that. If you work in Utah you usually break in Utah. If you break normally in Nevada but are working in Utah, you must walk to Nevada to clock out and go to break where your stuff is (lunch, car etc). There is no extra time given to get across the warehouse. And there is no running! Not even skipping or speed walking, it's a safety issue.
I said 1,000,000 square feet of cement because Amazon has taken advantage of the air above your head by building floors of book storage. It wasn't built all at once, but in stages, so often there are bottle necks getting from "the old" section to the "the new" section, or a bottle neck getting through the gates on the conveyer belts. The new section is built in front of the old section past two gates, and I'm on the third floor. It will take me 5 minutes at least to get down and back up, leaving me with a 5 minute break... if I want to keep my numbers up. Everything I have told you is based on the normal 10 hour day. 10 hours, with three breaks totaling 1 hour. They have swamp coolers on the roof, but one is broken and the rest breed mosquitos (at least when I was there that was how it was) swamp coolers cool the air in an open space, but that air is warmed quickly, so unless you are standing under one that works, the air is stagnant and hot and dry. Dehydration is very common, so you must drink a lot of water. You are not given time to pee except on your breaks. If you are in the recesses of the racks and have to pee, you will cut deeply into your numbers. Hence, I waited too long and peed my pants. BTW there is much more than the old section and the new section. There were three huge sections of racks in Nevada, when I was there, and plans to build more.
The space between the shelves is about 40 or 50 inches (as I remember) and a cart is about 24 inches so two carts (stowers, stockers or pickers) can't be in the same aisle at one time. The rows are either very long OR a dead end. Stowers and stockers must give way to pickers. Often the only available space to stock is on the floor level. The case of books is removed from the cart to the floor, you sit down and quickly scan and stow your books. If your lucky there is enough room for more than one book and you only have a case of 12 books. 24 scans, (book, shelf, book, shelf etc.) no picker shows up, you count your self VERY lucky. Your number will be normal, not good, but right on. If you can't find a place, or you have a specialty book (coffee table) they have to go in a certain type of shelf so they don't get bumped and damaged. CD's have their own area. Jewelry is in the cage and anybody, stocking, stowing or picking must be accompanied and they are on camera. Understandable, but time consuming. You must use stairs to get from floor to floor, carry your gloves, knives, water, note pad, coaching cards etc. with you when moving from floor to floor. One hand on the railing of the stairs at all times. You can't transfer a case of books or a cart from one floor to another, so if you can't find any open spots you must move to another section on that floor through all the gates, bottle necks, pickers, stowers, stockers and supervisors to find room to stow your books.
Fernley hits 100+ degrees regularly throughout the summer. Fernley has been known to get to sub zero temperatures in the winter.
The dock doors are on the south side and there are no doors on the north side. No windows except in the break rooms. Open doors are a very bad thing here, it's too hot on the south side.
Amazon has exhausted the Fernley work force, so most of the employees drive in from Reno. During the Christmas season, they bus people in from Reno. I've seen 8 loaded buses, but I have no idea what the average or the record is. At that time they relax the hiring standard of a GED or better, drug tests are done in groups, how they distinguished my pee from his pee I don't know, but some how all 40 of us passed! Many of the employees are homeless at Christmas, not "I wanna work and get off the street" homeless, drunk, dirty, angry, mentally unbalanced homeless. Not somebody who cares about the product, themselves or keeping their numbers up.
Did I mention Amazon employs on site medical? Yeah, you get injured, you go to a clinic on site, and they ask all the right questions to insure you don't have a claim against them. Unless you are bleeding, swelling or otherwise obviously recently injured, might as well forget about reporting it. I still have a dead spot in my leg I couldn't prove happened when I lifted a case that was heavy.
I have heard that the work force is so drained here in Northern Nevada that they have moved the Christmas crush to Henderson Nevada because they couldn't hire enough people here to get the job done. They even exhausted Reno and Sparks!
 
+P Tufts - I don't know that much about UPS. I did a month there 10 years ago while waiting for another job to start up. Seemed like the cargo was heavier on a per-package basis, and they certainly did want people working long hours (with x1.5 pay past 6 hours per day / 40 per week, so almost always accepted). From the complaints I heard from co-workers at the FedEx plant who had jumped over from UPS, I gather that has not changed much.
BTW, driving for UPS (or FedEx) is a whole different ball of wax than being a plant worker on the load / unload lines. From what I gather, most folks who drive for either company are pretty happy (and since they are point-of-contact for the public, the company has an interest in keeping them that way).

Fed-Ex was a very different shift model from UPS even though the physical plant was near identical - they had lots of people working 4 hours a day, and even among the full-time loading / unloading staff nobody ever did overtime. To me that just makes sense - it saves money (raises were based on total hours worked) and gets the most out of each person with a lower risk of injury. I think a bigger danger than heat exhaustion (which did happen in our plant, several times a month that I knew of) was slip-and-fall.

+Ruth Flagg - That sounds totally retarded. At FedEx (Nashville ground hub) we had a lot of the same security practices as you (this is true through the whole company). Regretable, but needed. Hell, in one truck I used to literally get 5-8 70 lb boxes of silver bullion each night. Security did catch people stealing, and often. Still, they did the best the could to get us in and out fairly quickly. Most shifts were under 4 hours, and a full-time worker did two shifts- which typically had a 90 minute break between them. Time clocks were a nuisance, but not a major bottle-neck. Clocking in on time was a concern (you only had 3 minutes on either side of shift start), but when you clocked out, usually you were getting off before shift end, or half your co-workers had already done so. Clear bottles and fluids were required (unless you bought sealed milk cartons from vending machines on site, and threw them away before leaving) but it was your choice what to drink beyond that (I did a Nalgene bottle with bulk-mix Gatoraide). Yeah, we had a minimum rate we had to meet, but it was more of a "if you don't do this, you aren't really trying / don't have the physical capacity" pace; the top 10% of people in the plant typically did double or even triple that rate (stats on load rates were public, and based on scanner use- they didn't always reflect realty, but everybody knew that and accounted for it).

Pick & Pack (which I assume is what most folks at Amazon do) may be very different than Load / Unload... more than meeting any quota, the trick for me was to just beat the flow of packages coming down the chute. If there was to much flow for you to do that, the manager sent help (or had a senior worker keeping an eye on you, ready to step in an help). Piss breaks meant running to the bathroom while flow kept dumping into your truck, but you did so at your own discretion, and generally knew when flow was going to taper off an allow the time. I was both one of the heaviest bathroom users AND one of the heaviest hitters in terms of per-night load rate, so go figure.
Yeah, the WORK was robotic, but I felt like management considered atheletes rather than robots- which is pretty appropriate for the work we did. They wanted to enable you to do your job, not force you to do it. In fact, the only thing I ever saw people getting fired for (or felt would get me fired) was absenteeism.
P Tufts
 
+Kathy Gill Other things Amazon might consider unusual: a line of ambulances outside a warehouse, people collapsing after being forced to meet quota in what Amazon described as record hot conditions, and ER doctors calling OSHA.

Good to see them beginning to address the problem, but disappointing that such a smart company had to get reminded what to do.

I doubt $600k of equipment in PA (2.4M / 4 distribution centers, one in PA) is going to make the difference. The bigger change will be to open dock doors for ventilation, despite the increased theft risk, and to give workers reasonable quotas and breaks when operating in high heat.
 
By the way, I didn't mention this as the post was too long anyway, but try and find an employee who has worked at Amazon.com for more than their vested 5 years. If you do, ask them about their current working conditions. They thought their first five years was bad....
Ralph H
 
Shouldn't the data NOAA collected be archive (and free) at data.gov? Seems like I'm paying twice for the same data.
P Tufts
 
I think we pay once for the collection, and once for them running the servers to make it accessible. I bet if archive.org or another non-profit wanted to inhale the data and redistribute it, that wouldn't be too hard.