An Amazon.com Inc. warehouse collapse on Friday night that killed at least six people has amplified concerns among its blue collar workforce about the return of the internet retailer’s mobile phone ban in work areas.
A string of tornadoes caused extensive damage to Edwardsville in Illinois. It left a trail that spanned more than 200 miles. The emergency responders anticipate that recovery efforts will continue through next week.
Amazon forbid workers to bring their smartphones on its warehouse floors. They were required to store them in cars or lockers and pass through metal detector-enforced security screenings. The company pulled back during the pandemic but is gradually reintroducing the policy at various facilities across the country.
Five Amazon employees, including two who work across the street from the building that collapsed, said they want access to information such as updates on potentially deadly weather events through their smartphones—without interference from Amazon.
They also said that the phones could be used to help them reach loved ones or emergency personnel if necessary. “After these deaths, there is no way in hell I am relying on Amazon to keep me safe,” said one worker from a neighboring Amazon facility in Illinois. “If they institute the no cell phone policy, I am resigning.”
An employee at an Amazon warehouse, Indiana stated that she’s using her pay when Amazon decides to keep its doors open in spite of warnings about extreme weather. She said that having her smartphone with her makes it easier to make decisions about unexpected tornado risk.
“I don’t trust them with my safety to be quite frank,” she said. “If there’s severe weather on the way, I think I should be able to make my own decision about safety.”
Amazon declined to address the concerns raised by workers about its mobile phone policy, saying its focus now is “on assisting the brave first responders on the scene and supporting our affected employees and partners in the area.”
Concerns about telephone access are a sign of deep distrust among executives, who create rules to maximize efficiency and productivity to win a competitive advantage and the hourly workers at front lines who worry that their safety may be compromised by moving boxes.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the world’s wealthiest man after Elon Musk, only fueled 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.
Bezos sent a tweet at 8:58 p.m. Central Time to send his best wishes.
One person familiar with Amazon’s warehouse construction said the buildings are designed to local standards that account for events such as severe storms and snow loads. He said that warehouses located in areas prone to tornadoes have more concrete and steel reinforcement, where workers are told to shelter in case of emergency.
However, buildings can still be blown off their feet by extreme weather. A strong storm caused a partial collapse of a Baltimore building, resulting in the deaths of two Amazon workers.
Extreme weather alerts are sent by the National Weather Service via SMS messages. This allows people to be informed in advance of dangerous conditions.
While tornadoes are harder to forecast than snowstorms and hurricanes, warnings from the weather service continue to be issued to people in their path. According to workers, this warning was sent by the weather service at around 8 p.m. Eastern time on Friday. It came about 30 minutes after the storm destroyed the Edwardsville Amazon delivery center.
Amazon workers who worked in the facility directly across from each other said that they huddled together in their bathrooms in order to shield themselves against the rainstorm, not knowing the collapse of the nearby building. Communications were disrupted by power outages. When it became safe to travel, they were allowed home after work.
“After this, everyone is definitely afraid of not being able to keep their phones on them,” one of the workers said. “Most employees that I’ve talked to don’t keep their phones on them for personal conversation throughout the day, It’s genuinely for situations like this.”