‘Inexcusable’: Amazon Under Fire After Warehouse Collapse Kills at Least Six

By Andrea Germanos. Originally published at Common Dreams

Amazon was accused Saturday of putting corporate profits above worker safety following the tornado-caused partial collapse of a St. Louis-area warehouse that left at least six people dead.

“Time and time again Amazon puts its bottom line above the lives of its employees,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), in a statement. “Requiring workers to work through such a major tornado warning event as this was inexcusable.”

Appelbaum’s remarks came after an outbreak of over 20 devastating tornadoes late Friday tore through multiple states and killed dozens of people. In addition to Illinois, affected states included Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee.

Among the buildings struck was an Amazon facility in Edwardsville, Illinois—a community about 30 minutes from St. Louis. Local officials said Saturday that at least six people died from the collapse.

Local KMOV reported:

The walls on both sides of the building collapsed inward, causing the roof to fall. The 11-inch-thick, 40-feet-tall walls could not sustain the tornado that hit the building Friday night.

The National Weather Service confirmed that it was a category EF-3 tornado that went through Edwardsville Friday night. Winds picked up to as much as 150 mph.

The number of workers inside the building at the time of collapse is not yet determined. Edwardsville Fire Chief James Whiteford said at a press conference late Saturday that one person was injured and 45 people were rescued.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

By Saturday evening, first responders had shifted from an emergency response to a recovery effort. While they would continue to go through the rubble during daylight hours over the next three days, Whiteford said he doesn’t know whether any other victims will be found inside.

Shortly before the facility was hit the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center warned of an increasing “damaging wind and tornado threat” for the area.

As some observers pointed out on social media, Amazon has previously failed to close warehouses in the face of extreme weather events:

“How many workers must die for Amazon to have a policy for extreme weather events?” sociologist Nantina Vgontzas tweeted Saturday. “It’s currently up to local management and this is clearly disastrous. Condolences to the families and survivors of this horrific, avoidable tragedy.”

In his statement, Appelbaum called the event “another outrageous example of the company putting profits over the health and safety of their workers, and we cannot stand for this.”

“Amazon cannot continue to be let off the hook for putting hardworking people’s lives at risk,” he said, vowing that his union would “not back down until Amazon is held accountable for these and so many more dangerous labor practices.”

Adding to the fresh scrutiny of the online giant’s labor practices, as Bloombergreported Saturday, are its policies regarding employees’ mobile phone access. From the reporting:

Amazon had for years prohibited workers from carrying their phones on warehouse floors, requiring them to leave them in vehicles or employee lockers before passing through security checks that include metal detectors. The company backed off during the pandemic, but has been gradually reintroducing it at facilities around the country.

“After these deaths, there is no way in hell I am relying on Amazon to keep me safe,” one unnamed worker from another Amazon facility in Illinois told Bloomberg. “If they institute the no cell phone policy, I am resigning.”

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  1. cnchal

    > “Amazon cannot continue to be let off the hook for putting hardworking people’s lives at risk,”

    Oh yes they can. Already on last’s night propaganda show David Muir was splaining to us while standing in front of the destroyed warehouse that Amazon had shelters inside and the workers got inside and were safe. The MSM fix is in.

    What is outrageous is that it takes a tragegy such as this to muster a tiny bit of outrage and the daily whipping of exploitees, the double the normal injury rates Amazon sports compared to lesser peers is roundly ignored by almost all.

    Amazon shopper = whip cracking sadist

    1. jsn

      The union pressure is growing.

      Every event like this turns off more MSM viewers.

      Sooner or later the lies get too close to home and people stop believing.
      Very slowly, then all of a sudden.

  2. FreeMarketApologist

    Initial reports from a nearby candle factory indicated that there might have been a significant number of staff killed in that factory. Fortunately, the death toll there is significantly lower than estimated. It would be interesting to compare the actions taken in both places to see how management may have been ineffective in handling natural disasters.

    (Not apologizing for Amazon here, but the first news I had heard was about the candle factory, not the warehouse.)

    1. Ben S

      Actually hundreds in KY aren’t deaths yet, but missing, which is unofficially the same thing.

      It’s kinda disrespectful to let hatred of amazon shift all this attention to a tiny piece of the tragedy of the weekend.

  3. The Rev Kev

    You would think that it was an open and shut case. Amazon forbid their workers leaving that building and they have a proven track record of doing this before. As those workers died because of this mandate and it was in an Amazon building that they died in, Amazon clearly has primary responsibility for their deaths. But as cnchal notes above, the fix may already be in by the MSM and I doubt that a Biden regime will push them except to fine them a nominal amount of money that will probably be less than the cost to rebuild that warehouse. And just to cap it off, Amazon will rebuild it to the same original blueprints with no allowance for a safe room for the next time a tornado hits which is of course only a matter of time.

    1. Christopher Horne

      Reminds me of that scandal years ago when there was a fire at a chicken
      processing factory down south and the company had locked all the exits.
      Forgot how many workers died, but it was a lot. Chickens are one thing,
      but people insist on having their Xmas goodies on time. This time of year
      Amazon hires a lot of temps, too. But it’s no different than when immigrants
      are put in the fields to harvest crops in hundred- degree weather, and some
      die. Amazon would say they are only responding to consumer demand,
      and of course making a big profit. Workers are only tools to them,
      like picks and shovels in a mine, and when the tools wear out,
      or prove inadequate for the job, you throw them out.
      I worked the Xmas rush one year at a ‘fulfilment center’. After 2 weeks
      I (an older worker) was canned, along with two others. I was told
      it was a ‘random selection’- an old man, a deaf girl, and a guy who didn’t
      speak English. How ‘random’ can you get?

  4. lambert strether

    > 11-inch-thick, 40-feet-tall walls

    Do we have any structural engineers who can comment on this?

    1. jsn

      Good call, I had the same thought.

      At 11″ there’s no way the wall was self supporting for lateral (wind) loads. It had to be braced against the building’s steel frame which no doubt had cross bracing.

      If the area is zoned for tornados, the design engineer or crooked contractor is responsible for the fail, if not, well, climate change is going to require a costly re-think of the building codes.

      1. Mark Sites

        Not a practicing structural engineer, but a civil who has helped build dozens of these big boxes, up to one million square feet. The Amazon warehouse appeared to be standard tilt-up construction, the most often used form of construction for big boxes. The the concrete panels are formed on the ground, like a tall skinny rectangle. When the reinforced concrete has reached the needed strength a crane is used to tilt the panels up and “stack” them along the exterior steel frame. The steel framing of the building is what carries the wind loading on the walls. Construction is covered under national and local building codes, which do include wind loads for both walls and roofing, and the procedures for analyzing them.

        A detailed inspection of the failures in the steel framing should provide the explanation for the progression of the failure: where it first failed, why it failed, and importantly the progression for the failure in the frame. The key variable is the wind speed, and I expect the weather service radar could provide that. The challenge is in reconciling the actual failures against the theoretical projections. There are people who are very good at this, and Amazon can afford to conduct the best forensics possible.

        Standard building codes for such structures would require safe places sized for the expected number of occupants. OSHA posting with instructions for their location and use are required to be posted in the building, usually in break rooms, if Amazon has any.

        1. pricklyone

          I am only about 10 miles from the AMZN warehouse in question(as the crow flies).
          I worked in one of these for 12years, built by some of the same parties, across the river in MO.
          The “frame” on the walls is only to support the walls while erection is in progress, as near as I can tell. The walls are free of structure for many 10’s of feet (100ft.?)Roof beams appear to be the only member resisting the “fallover” of those skinny tiltup walls.

          I am not an engineer, myself, but look at the picture in this link. What frame?

    2. redleg

      I’m not a structural engineer, but my engineering thesis was disaster response and prevention. Structural engineers can speak to the details, but from my research (ca. 2004-5) there are some response & prevention items to note:

      1. Large span roofs are prone to fail during strong wind events. Think of them as giant wings generating lift.
      2. Wind speeds in severe storms increase with height, so tall buildings should be designed for larger wind loads. This is especially important for structures with large, flat walls as they act as sails.
      3. Un-reinforced masonry construction is prone to fail in all kinds of disaster conditions- wind, wave, ground movement, etc. The hollow-core concrete panels, usually something like 12′ wide by 40′ tall, that make up large industrial buildings may- or may-not be reinforced. If not, they’ll topple in the wrong conditions. Reinforced masonry OTOH holds up quite well under severe conditions.
      4. There should have been a storm shelter (it’s usually the breakroom) of reinforced masonry or steel (e.g. a cooler). With the storm shelter, there should have been a policy on how/when to use that shelter per OSHA rules on hazard mitigation, including drills.

      It appears that a strong storm with very high winds (tornadoes are wind) hit an industrial area with tall hollow-core concrete panel constructed warehouses with enormous flat, large-span roofs, that lacked adequate storm shelters &/or training on when you use them.
      I could be wrong. Maybe the tornado had 180mph wind in that sector and was moving 80 mph. That would exceed reasonable or even robust design and well rehearsed storm drills. But my expectation is that the structures were built fast and cheap, and the workers deemed expendable.

      1. gwb

        Home Depot buildings are flimsy shells. The roofs are sheet metal with skylights. We were once in a HD during a hailstorm cloudburst. It was deafening. Even scarier are all those multiple tons of lumber stored on racks high above your head.

      2. Lambert Strether

        > There should have been a storm shelter

        Maybe the managers were flipping through the three-ring binder to see if it was OK to use the break-room for that purpose, and if that would screw up Amazon’s algos (and their incentives). But they kept flipping too long….

        1. Valerie

          Almost every Amazon break room I’ve been in has a glass window wall. We were told to shelter in the cinderblock bathrooms, HR office block areas etc. Not a lot of room there. I never experienced a tornado while I worked in one of these warehouses, but they did evacuate the building twice for small fires, both times while it was sleeting. We were not permitted to go to our cars and most people had no opportunity to grab their coats or keys, but HR eventually wandered about with mylar space blankets and Hot Hands until the fire department gave the all-clear. Power outages were worse. The place is so lethal in the dark and has such minimal safety lighting that protocol is to sit on the floor where you are and signal for a manager to escort you to safety with a flashlight- safety being that break-room with the glass window wall.

          1. Christopher Horne

            Note that the bathrooms at Amazon are outside, and before
            you go, you must be ‘wanded’ to make sure you aren’t stealing anything. Same thing with the break rooms and
            all exits. A couple hundred people attempting to escape
            with only a few minutes warning would be a recipe for
            disaster and mayhem.

      3. redleg

        Not an engineering related follow up, but a thought:
        By classifying workers as contractors, Amazon doesn’t have to provide Workmans’ Comp for the ones that were killed or injured.
        Labor is not merely expendable, but disposable- there were no casualties, only formalities.

        It makes me sick.

  5. Bob

    Based on the limited description of the building, this maybe “Tilt Up” construction which involves casting concrete panels on the existing floor slab and then tilting up the panels.

    And remember while concrete is excellent with compressive loads tensile loading is another matter altogether.

  6. Dave in Austin

    There are area-wide tornado warnings whenever a cold, low pressure storm flows in from the high plains and Canada and meets much warmer damp air in lowlying areas of mid-America. This is a very traditional pattern, with consequences intensified by population increase in the effected areas.

    The first European farmers who lived out on those plains were stunned by the storm fronts’ ferocity. But they expected to stay on their new farms so they built storm cellars in the yard, which also doubled as cooling houses for farm products. Two feet of dirt piled on the roof of a small dugout will protect a family from any tornado.

    But in our modern “move every ten years” world, nobody but surivalists build such things. Purchasers don’t value storm cellars and will not pay extra to get them; they want “feature” like marble countertops and vaulted ceilings which they will pay for. The best most people get are reinforced bathrooms on a concrete slab, which are not required by most codes. Maybe large buildings with tilt-up walls like the Amazon building should have such safe bathrooms in the middle, away from the heavy walls and subject to only the weight of those paper-thin roofs we see when we look up in the local WalMart. They would offer some protection. Many school building codes require such “shelter in place” spaces.

    And if the workers had been told to go home, what would have been the consequences? Statistically, the same number of people would have been hit by a tornado but there would have been many more “small deaths”- people dying in ones-and twos, like happened the last time a tornado hit near Austin, TX, where I live. Plus the people allowed to go home would have been driving in horendous weather, with a statistically small increase in traffic fatalities… the “ones-and-twos again. This is one reason why the call to “let them out of school early during snow days” is often resisted by authorities

    Every years approximately 40,000 people die in US car accidents, roughly 100/day. The world total is between 500 and 1,000/day. These are ignored but when 100 people die in a plane crash it is big news, even though plane travel is statistically safer/mile than car travel. The same goes for bus travel; safer than cars but every accident leads to a huge “per death” news coverage. I guess this is human nature combined with the exploitation of the press.

    But, in any case, sadly, laws or traditions which say “let then leave during a storm” will apparently not lead to fewer deaths, just fewer headlines.

    1. redleg

      You are more likely to get killed or injured by a storm in your car than in any structure. Keeping them there is safer even if the building is iffy.

      1. Yves Smith

        Not true with tornados if you know what to do v. have crap shelter. They produce intense but highly localized damage. And you can see the funnel (at least in the day, night is a different issue).

        You do NOT try outrun it. You drive 90 degrees v. its path.

    2. pricklyone

      Dave in Austin:
      Mostly agree with your post. One small quibble, though.
      I am just about 10miles straight line from that AMZN warehouse.
      The NWS issues a tornado WATCH for these storms. Tornado WARNINGS are issued when tornadoes are sighted (traditionally visual sightings, but increasingly when doppler radar picks up a likely rotation).
      My phone lit up with a WARNING a few minutes prior. The WATCH was in effect from much earlier.
      If we all went home, or to the cellar during warnings, we would spend the whole storm season there..(smiley).
      When I worked in one of these “tilt-ups” , the designated shelter area was the breakroom. It was on an outside wall. Um, yeah…

  7. David B Harrison

    What about the Mayfield KY candle factory? Dozens of deaths(exponentially more than the Amazon warehouse).In the town I work in (Bowling Green KY) we had at least 11 deaths.

          1. allan

            Also: Factory workers threatened with firing if they left before tornado, employees say [NBC]

            As a catastrophic tornado approached this city on Friday, employees of a candle factory — which would later be destroyed — heard the warning sirens and wanted to leave the building. But at least four workers told NBC News that supervisors warned employees they would be fired if they left their shifts early.

            For hours, as word of the coming storm spread, up to 15 workers beseeched managers to allow them to take shelter at their own homes, only to have their requests rebuffed, the workers said.

            Fearing their safety, some in fact left during their shifts regardless of the repercussions. …

            Company officials denied the employee allegations. …

            Sounds like testimony under oath is called for.

  8. Mantid

    I’ve visited that portion of the country. I found it amazing when sirens would go off, people continued to play bridge and sip beer. As in California when earthquakes happen, “wow cool, check out the chandelier”. Seems like this one get a bit out of hand. God speed to all in KY and TN.

    1. pricklyone

      There are no sirens where I am in Madison Co.
      They were all removed/decomissioned years ago.
      When “AMOCO” had a refinery in Wood River, they had there own siren, but was too distant for us to hear, unless you were in open air, and the wind was right…
      I used to work at a smelter, and my boss had a Weather radio, with an alarm, on his desk. Now they are killing that system, and you need to have a phone to get alerts.
      Me no carry phone. They were not allowed on the floor at the last warehouse I was employed in. Had to leave phones in locker or car. Widely ignored policy, I observed.
      Doubtful AMZN would overlook it!
      We are a fairly scattered population in this part of the country. When tornadoes and severe straight line wind events happen, they often happen in farm fields and other open ground. Sometimes farms lose outbuildings or grain silos. Most of the warnings expire without incident. People make a judgement call based on their estimate of the risk….We are not part of “tornado alley”.
      Some folks have nice finished basements, with “family entertainment centers”/ home theaters. They are already in the best shelter they have.

  9. Fred

    We were told to go into the bathrooms when a tornado approached out company in Texas. The thing is where is the regulation in these states and cities for safe places? We have earthquake and now fire rules here in California. Many flood areas have regulations. Maybe it’s time for tornado rules.

  10. wendigo

    So going forward which is more likely ?

    Local/state/federal rules enacted to change regulations for structures, safe rooms, storm precautions, repetitive strain and heat stress protections for workers.

    Relying entirely on the Invisable Hand to remedy these issues.

    Amazon is a symptom, not the disease.

  11. dbk

    My indispensable Illinois politics blog has a post now up about the Amazon distribution center in Edwardsville, contrasting it with another tornado that hit Roanoke (near Peoria) in 2004 and completely destroyed the Parsons Manufacturing Company. This was a category F-4 – 200 mph winds – and the employees were given the same number of minutes to shelter (11). But the plant’s owner had ensured proper storm shelters in-plant to withstand such extreme events. Not a single person (of the 150 present) was injured.

    Here’s the link – comments, btw, tend to be on the whole informed and serious.

      1. pricklyone

        I would bet the employee breakroom. They want everyone to gather at one spot, making head counts possible.
        In our warehouse, it was on an outside wall, but without windows.
        Employee safety is never gonna be the main concern, of course, especially AMZN, but shelter during a tornado is only a matter of degrees. There is no practical “safe Place”, only more safe/less safe.
        I must confess, I was reading in bed when the alert sounded, at about 8:10. (This from an old cell phone, no longer in service, but connected to wi-fi.I use it as alarm clock/reminder/kitchen timer).
        I looked outside..listened for the “freight train”, and resumed reading, as the wind was not even kicking up here.
        10 miles away.
        As Yves said in the comments here “severe but localized” threat. Somebody may get killed, but the odds are good in my favor, just by making the call based on local conditions.
        I have a basement, and I know how to use it…(grin)
        This warehouse is in a cluster of warehouses just like it. If one of the other ones sent employees out into the night, and they drove in the direction of the AMZN whse, just in time for the big event, then???
        There is an informal risk/benefit analysis that takes place in the minds of us flyover denizens, faulty as it may be.

        1. Yves Smith

          That is not correct. There are plenty of public or semi public buildings here, in Birmingham, which is a major tornado zone, that have designated safe areas for tornados. Those will NEVER be on an external wall.

          There are FEMA standards for building safe rooms. And:

          Larry Tanner, from the Texas Tech University Wind Science & Engineering Research Center, said “In my 15 years of doing storm damage research and storm shelter research, we have never documented any deaths or injuries in above ground tested safe-rooms or failures of tested safe-rooms. This includes the storms of Joplin 2011 and Moore 2013”.


          This is admittedly from a vendor but still…And it turns out Texas Tech is the authority on this matter. From Popular Science:

          FEMA does not recommend attempting to tornado-proof your home. Instead, it recommends a safe room: an internal room, like a bathroom or office or large closet, which can be modified to meet the International Code Council (ICC)-500 standard. ICC-500 is the product of a joint, decades-long effort by FEMA and Texas Tech University’s Wind Science and Engineering department, known as WISE, to figure out exactly how best to protect a home from out-of-control winds.

          You can view the complete document here, but in short, it requires that this room be fortified to withstand a 5 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, typically referred to as EF-5 level winds. EF-5 level winds are in excess of 200mph, so the FEMA code stipulates that the room must be reinforced, typically with concrete but sometimes with steel or even a combination of steel and wood.


          And as readers indicated, the traditional storm cellar is tornado proof. The articles above indicate that the big risk in a tornado is being hit by flying debris. The risk of something like that in a big building is that the building comes down on top a a secure basement space and it takes a long time to get people out.

          1. pricklyone

            What exactly are you saying is incorrect? I stated correctly that the place that employed me designated the employee breakroom (lunchroom) as the emergency shelter.
            That is fact. It was on an external wall. Fact.
            I made zero mention of “tested shelters”, never seen one. I referred to practical safe spaces for extant buildings.
            Home shelters are of course irrelevant to the Amazon warehouse story covered here.
            FEMA rcommendations for home shelters are in no way applicable to anything here

            1. Yves Smith

              It was your declaration:

              +….but shelter during a tornado is only a matter of degrees. There is no practical “safe Place”, only more safe/less safe.”

              There are structures designed and tested to withstand EF-5 tornadoes, the highest category (the Illinois one was “only” EF-3). You can buy them and install them in your own home, as my comment indicted. No one has ever died or even been injured in a structure built to this standard.

              To say there is no such thing as a safe structure is to give Amazon a free pass.

              1. pricklyone

                You could have said so. I will concede that there are claims of such by partnership including shelter manufacturers and FEMA (and they are always right about stuff…)

                It isn’t about Amazon, specifically, everyone follows the same code (unless it was somehow circumvented, grounds for legal action).

                If Amazon built to the code in force when the building was constructed, then they get the same consideration as Hershey, Lowes, Proctor & Gamble, Dial, Unilever, etc. who are occupants of the same business park.
                They don’t need a “pass” for following the law, such as it is…
                As for traditional storm cellars being tornado proof, you would have to define the beast. Here on the prairie, traditional was a hole in the ground with a wooden “cellar door” type cover. Later ones were fancier.
                Only one reader I found mentioned it, saying 2 feet of soil over a dugout would protect from “any tornado”. A few years ago there was a very long path tornado, which ended up near Highland, IL. There is (or was) a 4-6 foot deep ravine cut in a field by said tornado. I have pictures on a spare drive somewhere, I’ll hunt them up if I can. I don’t think 2 feet of dirt is gonna do it…

                1. Yves Smith

                  Amazon has a policy, unlike many other employers, of not letting workers go to their lockers and leave the building until they have been searched. That means they can’t leave quickly (at all as we discovered) even in the face of an emergency warning.

                  So the onus is on Amazon and other employers with similar policies to have safe places. This isn’t merely a matter of code but also of Amazon creating more liability for themselves by preventing exit. By contrast, here in Birmingham, in severe weather events, schools and offices close early to let people go home well before the storm/tornados are supposed to hit. It’s both to prevent being caught in the workplace (liability!) and driving home in unsafe conditions.

  12. ardj

    According to Bloomberg (“Deadlycollapse at amazon warehouse”, 12dec21), there may be a problem with Amazon not allowing workers to keep their mobile phones at work, highlighting “the deep distrust betwen executives … and front-line workers who often fear their safety is secondary to moving packages”
    Bloomberg adds: “Amazon founder Jeff Bewos …. only fuelled such feelings by spending the earlier part of Saturday celebrating a celebrity space launch by his company Blue Origin while emergency crews at the warehouse dug through rubble looking for bodies”.

  13. Anthony Stegman

    As I read these comments Amazon Prime trucks are driving through my neighborhood. The sad reality is most Americans care more about one day delivery than they do the working conditions at Amazon. Amazon has zero incentive to make changes to the way it operates. The orders keep rolling in. As do the profits.

    1. tegnost

      I don’t know about most, and it’s very hard to get data on which neighborhoods get the most amazon deliveries (anyone who can find that :) but my guess is it’s ubiquitous in wealthy areas but less common elsewhere (No credit card no amazon, no money in the bank no amazon, etc…) At the very least, on volume my wealthy friends have stacks of boxes every week, and me zero. It’s more like “the people who matter use and feel they need amazon”

  14. MG77

    OSHA supposedly was going to investigate the site today including the report that the “tornado storm shelter” was on the north side of the building but the tornado struck the southern side of the building including the break room.

    Not holding my breath. OSHA has had a pretty sad history of investigating labor abuses in Amazon fulfillment centers and doing much in the way of corrective & punitive actions.

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