What it’s like to work at Amazon during a heat wave

As California braced for what would be a record-breaking heatwave this month, workers at an Amazon air transportation hub in San Bernardino did too.

They distributed handheld thermometers among a dozen colleagues to covertly document workplace temperatures, then compiled the results into a one-of-a-kind report on conditions in Amazon during extreme temperatures.

According to the paper released last week by the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, their experience at the facility known as KSBD has been defined by sweltering temperatures, employee activism, and in some cases concessions from the e-commerce giant. His release is another sign of the growing trade union movement in Amazon, where unionization efforts and protests are becoming commonplace, including a strike at the same facility last month.

The workers “did not wait for Amazon to decide to take their health seriously,” the report said, and “documented extremely high temperatures and serious inconsistencies with Amazon’s temperature monitors.”

Amazon spokesperson Mary Kate McCarthy Paradis called the report’s findings “misleading or just plain inaccurate.” In an email, she said that the KSBD building is equipped with a team of trained security professionals who monitor the temperature and take additional measures when needed, including ensuring employees additional breaks. Paradis said Amazon overall has more than 8,000 security professionals on its job sites to support employees.

“The report ignores the robust protocols we have in place that meet or exceed industry standards and OSHA guidelines,” said Paradis.

From August 31 to September 6, workers measured the temperature inside the warehouse, inside the holds of the aircraft and on the asphalt, where dozens of workers load and unload goods from the planes.

Indoor temperatures ranged from 75 to 89 degrees that week, according to the report, and rose to 96 inside cargo planes and tractor trailers.

On September 4, a worker recorded a temperature of 121 degrees on the asphalt, according to the report. The highs recorded in the area reached 110 degrees during the heatwave, but near dark surfaces and expanses of pavement temperatures could easily read 10 degrees higher, said Alex Tardy, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Diego. .

When asked to take a break inside a cooling station – a van parked nearby – the worker checked the digital thermometer and took a photo. It was 90 degrees.

When temperatures in outdoor work areas exceed 80 degrees, the State Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal / OSHA, requires employers to provide access to shade, training, and water and ensure the right to preventive cooling periods when workers need them. In high heat conditions, defined as temperatures of 95 degrees or higher, employers are required to remind workers of safe practices, encourage breaks and water consumption, and observe them for signs or symptoms of heat sickness.

There is still no equivalent internal heating standard. California lawmakers passed legislation in 2016 that requires Cal / OSHA to develop an indoor standard by 2019. Cal / OSHA submitted the proposed rule to the state Department of Finance in 2021; no standard has been implemented. However, under the Cal / OSHA rules, employers are required to maintain a safe workplace and are required to develop adequate plans to do so.

The report says that two groups of around 50 workers approached the facility’s general manager at the start of the heat wave – on August 31 and September 2 – to remind the company to comply with the state’s existing occupational safety law. and outdoor heat disease prevention regulations.

The report said Amazon immediately took steps to address some concerns raised during the meetings, including the supply of chilled water, iceboxes, and electrolyte packets. The company has encouraged more cooling breaks and added more fans in some interior areas, according to the report.

Paradis said competing cargo facilities are far inferior to KSBD and other Amazon air hubs, which are “fully air-conditioned and have both air conditioning and high-speed fans to increase airflow.”

“We take the health and safety of our employees very seriously and always work hard to support them,” he said.

Amazon did not respond to Times’ requests for temperature data the company recorded to KSBD during the heatwave; nor would the company comment on workers’ temperature readings. Amazon spokesman Paul Flaningan told CNBC in mid-August that the highest temperature recorded at the facility was 77 degrees.

The report said workers sometimes felt that the indoor temperatures displayed by Amazon on a monitor near the facility’s entrance did not reflect the warm conditions they experienced. Temperatures Amazon displayed on its input monitor typically stayed in the mid-1970s and peaked in the 1980s, according to photos taken on the screen the week of the heatwave. According to the report, a temperature of 89 degrees was recorded in the same area.

Rex Evans, who works outdoors loading and unloading cargo from planes, said he was wary of Amazon reports. He said he observed a security department employee taking a temperature reading under the plane, in the shade, which he believes would skew the result.

“I don’t trust them,” Evans said. “It won’t be a real reading.”

Sara Fee, who works in an area of ​​KSBD called the “exit dock,” said she thought that by confronting managers at the start of the heat wave, workers avoided heat shelters. “We saved lives,” she said.

One worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity fearing professional repercussions, said supervisors pledged to encourage breaks for the first two days of the heat wave. Soon after, the worker said, the pace picked up and the schedule returned to normal. There’s usually no time during the roughly four-hour process of loading a plane to take breaks that last more than a minute or two, the worker said. There is not even time to use the bathroom.

Tim Shadix, legal director of the Warehouse Worker Resource Center who helped compile the report, said the documented temperatures, including indoor temperatures in the mid-1980s, “can be really dangerous” for people who make strenuous exertion. for shifts of 10 hours.

Installing effective cooling mechanisms indoors to keep temperatures below 80 degrees is critical to workplace safety, said Debbie Berkowitz, former Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor for the Safety and Administration Administration. occupational health during the Obama administration.

A company like Amazon, known for its high employee turnover rates in its warehouses, needs to make sure it sensitizes workers to safe practices during the heat, Berkowitz said. This is because the risk increases for newly hired workers who are not yet acclimatized. These measures are simple to implement, she said: “It’s water and rest. It’s not rocket science. “

The OSHA website points to studies that found that nearly half of heat-related deaths occur on a worker’s first day of work and over 70% of heat-related deaths occur during a worker’s first week .

The impetus for self-documenting temperatures came as part of the Amazon group’s push for higher pay.

The group, which goes by the name Inland Empire Amazon Workers United, first filed complaints of sweltering heat both indoors and out in the early summer.

Amazon installed a TV monitor at the entrance in mid-July listing the indoor temperatures recorded in various wings of the facility and created an additional rest area to counter the heat, workers said.

In August, dozens of KSBD workers quit their jobs, asking Amazon to raise their base pay to $ 22 an hour, up from around $ 17 an hour. Organizers said around 160 workers attended. Amazon disputed that number, saying 74 of the facility’s roughly 1,500 employees have left.

According to the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, more than 900 employees have signed a petition demanding pay increases.

KSBD, housed in the former Norton Air Force Base, opened in March 2021 and serves as Amazon’s largest West Coast air cargo facility. Amazon operates about 14 flights a day in and out of the facility 24 hours a day, Inland Empire organizers Amazon Workers United say.