The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) (MCT)
ALLENTOWN, Pa. —
This time last year, online retailer Amazon.com Inc. had ambulances parked outside its Breinigsville, Pa., warehouse complex on hot days, with emergency medical personnel ready to take workers suffering from heat injuries to nearby hospitals.
Today, Amazon warehouse workers say the facility is refreshingly cool when it’s hot and muggy outside. The company recently installed 40 roof-top air conditioners in its 615,000-square-foot warehouse, part of a $52 million investment in cooling its warehouses around the country.
“I didn’t even break a sweat today,” one worker said at the end of his shift last week, on a day when area temperatures topped 90 degrees. “It was really nice. I noticed the difference as soon as I walked in the door.”
The dramatic change comes nine months after an investigation by The Morning Call revealed difficult working conditions in the facility. Workers interviewed said they were pushed to work at dizzying rates in brutal heat. The heat index, a real-feel measure that considers heat and humidity, surpassed 100 degrees in the warehouse multiple times last year and sometimes exceeded 110, according to reports filed with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Work in the warehouse is physical, with many employees walking more than 10 miles per shift plucking items from shelves. Workers said those who didn’t move at a sufficient pace faced termination. They said quotas were not reduced when temperatures soared.
A customer backlash and heightened media scrutiny of the Seattle company’s operations followed publication of The Morning Call article. The volume of complaints was sufficient for the company to give its customer service representatives statements to send in response to concerns about working conditions.
Amazon, which opened its Breinigsville complex in 2010, blamed the warehouse heat on a particularly hot spring and summer. The company installed temporary air conditioning units last year after federal workplace safety regulators began inspecting the facility. But workers said parts of the warehouse, particularly its upper levels, remained unbearably hot even after the temporary air conditioning was installed.
Amazon gave water, fruit and ice pops to workers on hot days and relaxed its attendance rules on some days to let workers leave early, though they would lose pay.
In the past 11 weeks, Amazon has declined to answer specific questions from The Morning Call about its decision to install air conditioning at its warehouses. But the company said in a statement last Thursday, “In recent years, we’ve built our new fulfillment centers with air conditioning units installed. This year, we are also investing $52 million to retrofit our other fulfillment centers with air conditioning. In Breinigsville, we have replaced the three large temporary units we installed last summer with forty permanent roof-mounted units that will more efficiently and evenly cool the facility.”
The Morning Call obtained warehouse building permits using Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law. Those reveal that Amazon first sought permits to install temporary air conditioning last July, several weeks after warehouse workers and an emergency room doctor who treated some of them for heat stress complained to federal regulators about conditions.
That temporary system was removed from the warehouse in November, records show, and a contractor sought permits to install permanent air conditioning in early March.
The March permit application came 2 1/2 months before Amazon Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos announced at an annual shareholders meeting May 24 that the company is installing air conditioning at warehouses around the country.
“It’s not easy to retrofit an existing fulfillment center with air conditioning,” The Seattle Times quoted Bezos as telling shareholders. “We’re really leading the way here.”
Bezos’ announcement followed public protests against the company and working conditions at its warehouses.
Bethlehem, Pa., resident Karen Salasky, who said she lost her job at Amazon’s Breinigsville warehouse last summer after her work slowed in the heat, traveled to Seattle in May to participate in one of the protests near Amazon’s new headquarters.
She said she was pleased to learn air conditioning is being installed at Amazon warehouses.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Salasky said last week. “Workers need to be respected.”
Business experts can only speculate why Amazon - a fast-growing enterprise that is changing the nature of retail shopping and is known for its competitive business tactics - decided to invest so much on air conditioning. The amount is equivalent to 8.2 percent of Amazon’s 2011 earnings.
Donna Hoffman, co-director of the Sloan Center for Internet Retailing at the University of California-Riverside, said media exposure about working conditions likely prompted the investment. The company faces intense competition for online sales and doesn’t want a negative image, she said. Also, Amazon will continue to lose part of its competitive edge on prices as it is forced to collect online sales taxes in more states, she said.
“It behooves them to not be responsible for negative publicity if they can control it,” Hoffman said. “Paying $52 million to install air conditioning around the country is a smart move. They don’t need consumers asking themselves, ’Is Amazon a sweatshop?’ ”
But an analyst who follows the company for a business and technology research firm in Cambridge, Mass., said it probably wasn’t negative media coverage but a desire to protect products and maximize profits that prompted Amazon’s decision.
“Amazon ships a lot of electronics and food now. It’s not good to have that stuff in extreme temperatures,” said Sucharita Mulpuru, an analyst with Forrester Research. “I would like to think there was an element of humanity to the decision but there’s nothing in Amazon’s history or in Jeff Bezos’ public persona that would lead me to think that was the driver of the decision. . Rarely has Amazon made any business decisions that didn’t affect the bottom line.”
Amazon has quickly become one of the top 25 employers in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, with 1,381 local workers as of September. Hundreds more are employed at the Breinigsville warehouse through the temporary staffing firm Integrity Staffing Solutions. Amazon has declined to tell The Morning Call how many temporary workers are employed in the warehouse, where staffing increases during the holiday shopping season.
Signs of problems at the warehouse surfaced in May 2011, when Cetronia Ambulance Corps made several trips to the facility to treat workers suffering from the heat. Amazon subsequently paid to have ambulances stationed in its parking lot on hot days in case workers suffered heat stress.
In June of that year, OSHA started receiving complaints about working conditions in the warehouse. One employee complained that 15 workers collapsed on the job when the warehouse heat index exceeded 100 degrees, according to OSHA records. An emergency room doctor who treated warehouse workers suffering from the heat called federal regulators to report an “unsafe environment,” OSHA records state. OSHA opened an inspection of the warehouse that month.
In July, a contractor working for Amazon applied for permits to install temporary air conditioning units at the facility. Cooling equipment supplier Johnson Controls proposed installing three “440-ton portable air-cooled screw chillers.” The units are designed for “quick delivery and minimal installation time when you need temporary cooling,” according to records submitted to the building department in Upper Macungie Township, Pa.
Johnson Controls told the township the goal of installing the cooling system was to reduce the temperature in the warehouse to approximately 85 degrees. The temporary air conditioning system was turned on that summer.
In August, OSHA completed its inspection. The agency issued no fines and made recommendations to reduce heat-related risks to employees, including reducing heat and humidity in the warehouse. The agency says those working in temperatures above 100 degrees are at risk of heat stress but it did not specify an acceptable temperature for the facility.
The Morning Call published its investigation of working conditions, which included interviews with 20 warehouse workers, in September. Other media outlets picked up the story, and the news quickly spread around the world.
Thousands of comments were posted in online debates after the story was highlighted by The New York Times, Washington Post, Yahoo, Huffington Post and others.
Amazon responded to media scrutiny by saying it “spent more than $2.4 million urgently installing industrial air conditioning units in four of our fulfillment centers, including our Breinigsville facility. These industrial air conditioning units were online and operational by late July and early August. This was not mandated by any governmental agency, and in fact air conditioning remains an unusual practice in warehouses. We’ll continue to operate these air conditioning units or equivalent ones in future summers.”
Consumer backlash over working conditions at the warehouse proved limited and didn’t slow Amazon’s breakneck growth. The company had 2011 sales of $48 billion, up 40 percent from the previous year.
Still, Amazon continued to address heat at its warehouses. In March, a contractor applied for permits to install 40 roof-top air conditioners at Amazon’s Breinigsville shipping hub.
The new system installed appears superior to last year’s temporary system, according to an industrial engineer who reviewed records for The Morning Call. Air circulation is a key component of keeping a large space such as a warehouse cool. Without adequate circulation, hot air can stagnate in spots, especially at higher levels because hot air rises.
Since the new air conditioning system releases air at more points and all of them at the roof, it should do a better job of cooling the warehouse, the engineer said.
Contractors installed the air conditioners in April, using a helicopter to hoist each unit to the roof.
That same month, The Seattle Times launched a series about the company. One of the stories examined working conditions at the company’s warehouses in Kentucky, where workers also complained about having to work at fast paces in heat that pushed them to their physical limits.
On May 10, Upper Macungie Township’s building department finished inspecting the air conditioning installation at the Breinigsville warehouse, allowing the air conditioners to be used.
Six warehouse workers, including pickers who do a lot of walking, said the air conditioners are making their work environment more comfortable and that it’s easier to do their jobs in cooler conditions. The workers requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak with the media.
“It’s cool in there,” one worker said. “The third floor used to be the hottest. Now it’s the nicest.”
One worker said he started at the warehouse in November and was worried about warehouse heat heading into the summer.
“Even in November, on the third floor, it was really hot,” he said. “You were really sweating. The air conditioners are definitely needed and they’re appreciated.”
One worker who was there last summer said, “There seems to be an improvement.”
“You can feel the cool air moving down the main corridors. . I think it’s working,” the worker said.
Larry Wiersch, chief executive officer of Cetronia Ambulance Corps, said he does not expect that Amazon will need ambulances and paramedics in its parking lot this year.
“I am very pleased to share that there does not appear to be a need to do so as they seem to have resolved any issue with intense heat to the best of our knowledge,” Wiersch said. “It’s nice to see them working to resolve concerns for the safety of their employees that work with them.”