(Where?)House Safety: Amazon’s Systemic Hazards

by Colleen Brugger, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review Vol. 91

I. Introduction

Amazon has come a long way since its humble beginning as a bookstore.1Frank Holmes, Top 10 Largest Fortune 500 Employers in the U.S., U.S. Global Investors: Frank Talk (Oct. 26, 2022), https://www.usfunds.com/resource/top-10-largest-fortune-500-employers-in-the-u-s/. It flourished during COVID-19, becoming the United States’ second largest private employer in 2022.2Id. However, recently, Amazon has gotten into a bit of trouble. Amazon is facing a total of $60,292 in citations, mainly for ergonomic hazards from OSHA (“Occupational Safety and Health Administration”) based on working conditions in three of its warehouses across the United States.3Press Release, OSHA, Federal Safety Inspections at Three Amazon Warehouse Facilities Find Company Exposed Workers to Ergonomic, Struck-by Hazards (Jan. 18, 2023), https://www.osha.gov/news/newsreleases/national/01182023 [hereinafter OSHA Press Release]. These fines result from one of the largest ergonomic enforcements in OSHA’s history.4Id.

This article explores how Amazon’s current safety problems may be the tip of the iceberg, with no simple solution. Section II provides background on OSHA’s regulatory authority and its recent investigation–and fines–for Amazon’s warehouse employee safety. Section III discusses OSHA’s proposed remedies and their probability of success. Finally, Section IV concludes by providing a summary and a final recommendation for a remedy.

II. Background

OSHA is supervised by the Department of Labor (“DOL”).5Occupational and Safety Health Act, 29 U.S.C.S. §§ 651(b)(3), 656(a)(1) (LexisNexis, Lexis Advance through Pub. L. 117-262, approved Dec. 21, 2022). Under the Occupational and Safety Health Act of 1970, the DOL and subsequently OSHA, possess congressionally delegated authority to regulate the workplace.629 U.S.C.S. §§ 651—678 (LexisNexis, Lexis Advance through Pub. L. 117-262, approved Dec. 21, 2022). OSHA’s main regulatory aim is to ensure safety within the workplace for all employees.7About OSHA, United States Dep’t of Lab., https://www.osha.gov/aboutosha (last visited Feb. 2, 2023). OSHA enforces its goals either by promulgating regulations targeting specific hazards or through the general duty clause of the Occupational and Safety Health Act.829 U.S.C.S. § 654(a)(1)-(2); John Howard, OSHA Standards-Setting: Past Glory, Present Reality and Future Hope, 14 Empl. Rts. & Employ. Pol’y J. 237, 238 (2010).

Initially, OSHA focused on known hazards.9Howard, supra note 9, at 250. OSHA addressed these hazards with regulations on physical conditions and chemical exposures in the 1970s.10Id. While rulemaking has slowed significantly since the seventies, OSHA still pursues its purpose of promoting workplace safety.11Id. at 250, 351. OSHA achieves this goal, in ergonomics, through the general duty clause.

A. Ergonomic Hazards

Amazon was recently fined for ergonomic violations under the general duty clause by OSHA.12OSHA Press Release, supra note 3. Ergonomics is the ability to fit the job to the worker in order to prevent or eliminate work-related musculoskeletal disorders.13Ergonomics Overview, United States Dep’t of lab., https://www.osha.gov/ergonomics (last visited Feb. 3, 2023); Julie A. Parks, Comment, Lessons in Politics: Initial Use of the Congressional Review Act, 55 Admin. L. Rev. 187, 190 (2003). Musculoskeletal disorders impact joints, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and nerves.14Ergonomics Overview, United States Dep’t of lab., https://www.osha.gov/ergonomics (last visited Feb. 3, 2023). Due to this large scope, musculoskeletal disorders cover a wide variety of workplace injuries.15Id. By employing a system of ergonomics, an employer enables employees to experience fewer musculoskeletal injuries, decreased muscle fatigue, and potentially increased productivity.16Id. When an employee experiences a musculoskeletal disorder, they are likely to take time away from work.17Id. Time off negatively impacts both the employer, by lowering productivity, and employee, who loses hours from their paycheck. Ergonomic systems benefit both employees and employers.

While OSHA possesses a high level of concern about ergonomic hazards, it is rare for the agency to cite violators.18Parks, supra note 15, at 252. In fact, OSHA inspections of Amazon warehouses infrequently produce citations.19Bruce Rolfsen, Amazon Workplace Safety Inspections Were Weeks in the Making, Bloomberg L. (Jan. 19, 2023), https://www.npr.org/2023/01/18/1149787345/amazon-workers-back-injuries-fined-osha. Two years ago, OSHA performed over thirty inspections, resulting in the same number of citations (three), for all types of violations.20Id. These fines totaled $20,907—only one-third of the amount of fines issued in January 2023.21Id. Further, OSHA’s stated policy is to not pursue ergonomic hazards under the general duty clause if employers are actively working to mitigate the risk.22Parks, supra note 15, at 252. In the case of Amazon, discussed in more detail below, the high frequency–as much as nine times per minute–of bending, twisting, lifting, and extended reaches for packages in warehouses prompted violations and fines.23Andrea Hsu, Behind Your Speedy Amazon Delivery are Serious Hazards for Workers, Government Finds, NPR (Jan. 18, 2023), https://www.npr.org/2023/01/18/1149787345/amazon-workers-back-injuries-fined-osha.

B. OSHA’s Regulatory Authority–The General Duty Clause

The general duty clause is a segment of the Occupational and Safety Health Act of 1970, the same law that charters OSHA and grants it its authority. The general duty clause states that “[e]ach employer—(1) shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”2429 U.S.C.S. § 654(a)(1). The general duty clause is a relatively broad standard that allows OSHA to pursue workplace hazards for which there has not been a rule promulgated or for which a rule will not exist.25Howard, supra note 9, at 251. Enforcement under this clause requires that (1) the hazard is independently recognized, (2) there are workplace injuries related to the hazard, and (3) the employer could have taken feasible action to eliminate the hazard.26Id. at 251-52. The general duty clause has been OSHA’s favored method to enforce safety around ergonomics.27Id. at 252. OSHA typically prefers to work with employers rather than fining them for ergonomics violations.28Id.; Ergonomics Standard and Enforcement FAQ, United States Dep’t of Lab., https://www.osha.gov/ergonomics/faqs (last visited Feb. 10, 2023). However, the use of the general duty clause was not OSHA’s first choice for ergonomics enforcement.

In the late ’90s and early 2000s, OSHA attempted to issue and enforce an ergonomics standard.29Parks, supra note 15, at 194-95. This comprehensive standard faced political criticism and heavy lobbying from the outset.30Id. at 192-195. This political pressure caused Congress and the President to reject the regulation, despite evidence that it had prevented strain injuries in the meatpacking industry.31Id. at 195-96. This disapproval forced OSHA into the use of the general duty clause to ensure safety from ergonomic hazards.32Id. at 205. This leaves today’s employers with the challenge of interpreting nonbinding guidelines.33Id. OSHA has not added any public clarifying information to its site since 2015, and the last guideline generally applicable to warehouse employees, like those at Amazon, was published in 1998.34Ergonomics Standard and Enforcement FAQ, United States Dep’t of Lab., https://www.osha.gov/ergonomics/faqs (last visited Feb. 10, 2023).

C. Amazon’s Citations for Ergonomic Hazards

OSHA cited Amazon for ergonomic and struck-by hazards at three facilities: Waukegan, Illinois; Deltona, Florida; and New Windsor, New York.35OSHA Press Release, supra note 3. The fines total $60,292, breaking down to a little more than $15,000 per citation.36Id. The letters informing Amazon of the citations, while indicative of a few location-specific idiosyncrasies, demonstrate systemic issues.37Letters from OSHA Regional Directors to Amazon Facilities at 8-10, 20-23, 34-37 (Jan. 17, 2023), https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/OPA/newsreleases/2023/01/OSHA20230063a.pdf [hereinafter OSHA Letters to Amazon].

At the Illinois warehouse, OSHA cited Amazon for ergonomic violations associated with the various loading and unloading tasks for packages entering and exiting the warehouse.38Id. at 34. Each violation involved conditions within the warehouse where employees were repeatedly required to lift packages from awkward positions that came with an increased risk for lower back injuries.39Id. OSHA’s suggested mitigating measures such as mechanic assistance, both automated and manual, or an adjustable lift table to decrease the use of the awkward positions.40Id. at 35. For manual lifting, OSHA recommended reducing the weight of packages, providing a partner for assisted manual lifts, and reducing the duration of a shift without rest breaks, or increasing job rotation.41Id. at 36.

OSHA cited the Florida warehouse for two types of violations.42Id. at 20, 24. The first was the struck-by hazard resulting from the way packages are stored within the warehouse.43Id. at 24. The second violation was for ergonomics in the Inbound Fluid Unloading task, the Inbound Depalletize/Induct task, the Outbound Sorting task, and the Outbound Fluid Loading Task.44Id. at 20. Again, these positions were associated with frequent lifting of packages in awkward positions entering and exiting the warehouse.45Id. OSHA’s recommended mitigation included the developing of an ergonomics program, training for employees, rotating to decrease the frequency of weightlifting, and using automated technological assistance (i.e., electric pallet jack).46Id. at 21-23. OSHA’s goal in suggesting these remedies is, again, to reduce lower back injuries experienced by Amazon employees.47Id. at 20.

At the New York warehouse, the ergonomic hazards focused on the interior processes of the facility.48Id. at 8. The positions involved in the citation were the Induct Feeder/Induct Belt Loader process path and the Stow/Container Building process path.49Id. OHSA had fewer recommendations for this warehouse, but the suggestions were analogous to the recommendations for the Illinois and Florida warehouses.50Id. at 8-10, 21-23, 35. The repeated recommendations included employee training, developing an ergonomics program, rotating jobs during a shift, and using various automated technological assistance.51Id. at 8-10.

The New York warehouse has additional significance, as other local warehouses in the state have voted to unionize over safety issues, including the ones implicated in the ergonomics hazards.52Daniel Wiessner, Amazon Failed to Record Warehouse Injuries, U.S. Agency Says, Reuters (Dec. 16, 2022), https://www.npr.org/2023/01/18/1149787345/amazon-workers-back-injuries-fined-osha. One complaint from the Staten Island Amazon Labor Union about the package sorting system is that it only:

[A]ccounts for the size of the items but it doesn’t take into account its weight. That means that if you have items over 11” that are light and thin, they count for double in the system, but if you have items under 11” but they are heavy and difficult to stow, they count the same as small items that one can easily stow quickly.53Brima Sylla, Serious Problems in Stow: The Difference Between Theory and Practice at Inbound Stow at JFK8, The associate 11 (Dec. 2022), https://www.amazonlaborunion.org/read-the-newspaper#issue-3.

Further, with themes of twisting, bending, reaching, and lifting prevalent in all the positions OSHA cited Amazon for, there is clear potential for underlying systemic issues across Amazon’s warehouse systems.54OSHA Letters to Amazon, supra note 36, at 8-10, 20-23, 34-37.

III. Discussion

OSHA’s recommendations to Amazon to mitigate the ergonomic risks have merit.55Id. However, with OSHA’s enforcement focused on feasible actions taken by the employer, OSHA’s recommendations are not likely actionable for Amazon.56See Howard, supra note 9, at 251. OSHA’s recommendations would be more feasible for Amazon to employ if (1) Amazon’s ergonomic issues were not likely systemic within their warehouses,57See OSHA Letters to Amazon, supra note 36, at 8, 20, 34. (2) the recommendations did not require significant investment and evaluation by Amazon,58See Sylla, supra note 53. and (3) OSHA provided more guidance.59Ergonomics Standard and Enforcement FAQ, United States Dep’t of Lab., https://www.osha.gov/ergonomics/faqs (last visited Feb. 10, 2023).

The hazards experienced by Amazon warehouse employees described in the citation letters are substantially similar.60See OSHA Letters to Amazon, supra note 36, at 8, 20, 34. The position names vary by location, but all require repetitive “lifting, forceful exertions, twisting, bending, long reaches, awkward postures, and combinations thereof.”61Id. at 20; Andrea Hsu, Behind Your Speedy Amazon Delivery are Serious Hazards for Workers, Government Finds, NPR (Jan. 18, 2023), https://www.npr.org/2023/01/18/1149787345/amazon-workers-back-injuries-fined-osha. This means a significant portion of both employees who work within intermediate processes in the warehouse62OSHA Letters to Amazon, supra note 36, at 8. and those who work in the inbound and outbound processes63Id. at 20, 34. experience these ergonomic hazards across the country.

Second, the methods recommended by OSHA require significant investment and evaluation on Amazon’s behalf. Amazon’s current processes at these positions are dependent on several assumptions.64See Sylla, supra note 53. One assumption is the height of the package.65Id. The consideration of package height enables Amazon to reduce risk to employees by giving employees more time to properly maneuver large packages.66Id. However, this same system, which accounts for package height, does not account for the weight of the packages handled by warehouse employees.67Id. Without this assumption included in Amazon policy, it is harder for Amazon and OSHA to evaluate whether a lifting risk has been mitigated.

All of OSHA’s recommendations require time to implement. Amazon must abate the ergonomic hazards by May 30, 2023 in Illinois and Florida and October 6, 2023 in New York.68OSHA Letters to Amazon, supra note 26, at 10, 24, 38. Changing existing policy or assumptions underlying policy for a company that operates as the second largest domestic private employer takes time.69Holmes, supra note 1. This article assumes Amazon may first have to hire or consult experts to craft policy or conduct internal studies to abate the ergonomic violations since their employee handbook is not public. Amazon, therefore, may be unable to undertake the policy evaluation and implementation necessary in time to reach the abatement dates set by OSHA.

Instead of sole reliance upon OSHA’s violation-specific remedies, OSHA should attempt to provide guidance to employers in the form of nonbinding guidelines and a nationwide regulation.70OSHA Letters to Amazon, supra note 36, at 8-10, 20-23, 34-37. The guidelines would be an intermediate step towards the regulations. Currently, OSHA has no public guidelines targeted at ergonomics in warehouses.71Ergonomics Standard and Enforcement FAQ, United States Dep’t of Lab., https://www.osha.gov/ergonomics/faqs (last visited Feb. 10, 2023). By updating the nonbinding guidelines, OSHA can set the expectations of both employers and employees. Additionally, OSHA–in the case of Amazon–would gain an ally in enforcement. The Amazon Labor Union is highly concerned about the working conditions in the warehouses.72Bruce Rolfsen, Amazon Workplace Safety Inspections Were Weeks in the Making, Bloomberg L. (Jan. 19, 2023), https://www.npr.org/2023/01/18/1149787345/amazon-workers-back-injuries-fined-osha; Sylla, supra note 53. By having guidelines, and eventually, regulations publicly available, unions would have a more defined goal to strive for. 

OSHA should also begin to work towards the long-term solution of promulgating a regulation. There is limited data, due to the short life of the pre-existing regulation, that suggests regulations are effective in improving workplace conditions.73Parks, supra note 15, at 195-96. Further, the union can present a source of helpful information to balance both employer and employee needs in standard setting. A national ergonomics standard removes any lingering uncertainty stemming from the current outdated nonbinding guidelines74Parks, supra note 21, at 205. and would diminish the risk employees face. When Amazon sets a policy, it impacts over half a million employees.75Holmes, supra note 1. A regulation serves not only as a deterrent but sets a floor for what employees can expect of their employers.

IV. Conclusion

OSHA’s recent $60,292 fine—OSHA’s largest ever—to Amazon for three warehouses’ ergonomic violations indicates systemic problems within Amazon’s warehouse systems. Amazon should review current policies to mitigate some of the risks of musculoskeletal disorders. This review should include current assumptions about the weight of packages that employees lift. OSHA has the power to mitigate and prevent further harm to warehouse employees nationally–and not just those at Amazon. It can do so by taking the short-term step of issuing targeted guidance and the long-term step of regulatory action with a national ergonomics standard. Ergonomics benefits both the employer and employee. OSHA should act to halt and prevent systemic ergonomic violations.

Cover Photo by Maryland GovPics on Flickr and licensed under CC BY 2.0.


  • Colleen Brugger is a Cincinnati native who is looking forward to exploring the various law topics this year. When she is not working towards her law degree, Colleen enjoys exploring the city and a good book.


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