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Amazon avoids OSHA citations and fines in Edwardsville warehouse collapse

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EDWARDSVILLE — Some workers at an Amazon warehouse here that partly collapsed during a tornado in December didn’t remember participating in tornado drills, and others didn’t know where to take cover in an emergency, according to a federal investigation released Tuesday.

In letters sent to Amazon and three contract employers, officials with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, outlined how workers were warned to take cover 10 minutes before a tornado touched down, ripping through the southern half of the building and killing six people.

But a megaphone, kept in the warehouse to prompt people to take shelter, was locked in a cage and not accessible that night. Instead, managers walked through the 1.1 million-square-foot warehouse and told people to take cover, according to the letter.

And some employees didn’t know that only the northern bathroom was a tornado shelter, so they headed to the restroom on the southern end instead. As the twister reached the building, walls on the southern half of the warehouse collapsed. Five people died there and one was injured.

Still, OSHA found the company’s severe weather policies met federal guidelines and the agency issued no fines or citations. Instead, officials recommended Amazon and three contractors who helped staff the warehouse — AB&C D.A.D. Inc., Xseed Delivery and Boxify Logistics — to take stock of their emergency plans and update OSHA on their progress.

OSHA area director Aaron Priddy said the investigation’s findings should serve as a warning: As large warehouses like Amazon’s become more prevalent in an age of online sales, employers need to have a plan and make sure their workers understand it.

”During the course of an emergency is not the time to try to identify what we need to do,” he said.

Amazon said in a statement that it was already doing more safety and emergency preparedness drills and pledged to “carefully consider” OSHA’s other recommendations.

”We believe our team did the right thing, moving people to shelter as soon as the warning was issued,” the statement said. “Our buildings — including the Edwardsville delivery station — have emergency plans that identify exit routes and shelter areas.”

The three Amazon contractors did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

OSHA does not evaluate construction integrity. In the days after the collapse, federal, state and local officials started looking into the building’s condition. Structural engineering experts questioned whether buildings constructed like the warehouse were appropriate for a climate expected to see more frequent tornadoes.

Then, last week, civil rights attorney Ben Crump filed two lawsuits against Amazon, the warehouse’s developer, TriStar Properties, and builder, Contegra Construction, on behalf of the mother of a worker who died in the warehouse, plus three drivers who survived.

Another lawsuit filed in recent weeks included a report from an engineer with a regional search and rescue group who said he saw ”significant structural issues” with the building that might have contributed to its failure.

It is unclear whether OSHA’s findings could affect that litigation, but Priddy said the evidence found by inspectors showed Amazon handled the situation based on federal guidelines.

“In this particular circumstance, Amazon reacted to this severe weather event as we would expect any responsible employer to do,” he said.

Still, there is room for improvement.

“We encourage them to step up and make these changes,” he said.

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Katie Kull covers public safety for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She previously wrote about local government for the Springfield News-Leader. In her spare time, you can find her cooking, riding horses or spending time outdoors.

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