EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. — One year after a tornado struck an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Ill., killing six employees, an official said the company has “done a deep dive” on its emergency response and preparedness protocols, and new changes have been implemented.
On Dec. 10, 2021, an EF-3 tornado hit the DLI4 Amazon delivery warehouse in Edwardsville. Forty-five employees survived and one employee was air-lifted to a hospital for injuries. Federal safety investigators have said Amazon’s severe weather policies in place at the time of the tornado “met minimal federal safety guidelines for storm sheltering,” but the online retailer needs to do more to protect workers and drivers in the future.
As a result of the tornado, Kelly Nantel, director of global media relations for Amazon, told Spectrum News that managers have received more training, in addition to making sure that everyone is trained on day one, and there has been an increase in drills from one to two every quarter.
Nantel noted that the STL4 Amazon site in Edwardsville does drills twice every quarter at different shifts and times reaching as many employees as possible, “so that people know how to react.”
“Part of what Amazon does is always try to raise the bar for ourselves and for our employees. This event presented an opportunity for us to go back and do a really deep dive on our emergency response and preparedness protocols, how we handled events like that tornado and as a result, we’ve done a lot of things,” she said.
Amazon also has hired a meteorologist to its global team, which Nantel says has been “a great addition.”
“Being able to go from just monitoring the weather to actually forecasting the weather is a great advantage for us,” Nantel said. “We saw a lot of opportunity with that during the hurricanes that hit Florida and the panhandle of Florida this year.”
“We were able to pre-deploy goods and resources to the area, we were able to make decisions to close sites that were going be in the hurricane’s path, so that our employees didn’t have to worry about whether or not they had to go to work, that they could focus on evacuating and following those orders.”
Additionally, Nantel said employees nationwide have been given emergency cards that include a facility map and information on what to do during and after emergency and severe weather events.
“Every employee has these on their lanyard and any visitor who comes into our facility, say a delivery driver or a contractor, would be given this on their lanyard,” she said.
However, J Lopez, an Amazon warehouse employee in St. Charles County, told Spectrum News he has not received emergency cards, but that does not necessarily mean they have not been distributed to others at that site.
A response from Amazon’s Global Safety PR team said, “Sites should be using them and we’ll look into the specifics at that site.”
Lopez has been working at Amazon Fulfillment Center STL8 over the past three years and the Edwardsville tornado incident set him in motion to become an advocate for workers’ rights at Amazon.
“Since then, it really opened me up to wanting Amazon to be held more accountable for their lack of action,” Lopez said.
Since December 2021 tornado, Lopez said he has been involved in one tornado drill where workers were still confused on protocol.
“(Amazon officials) have been able to organize themselves and figure out all of their metrics, but they cannot figure out how to increase safety in our warehouse,” Lopez said.
This past spring, he said there was a tornado warning and employees received emergency texts from the National Weather Service to seek shelter while at work, but employees were told to “stand by.”
“There’s a difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning and there are different steps that you take depending on which one it is,” Nantel said.
“When there is adverse weather in the area, employees are advised to stand by for more direction. If there is a need to take an action, then they’re told to take the action. And those are the things that they’re taught in training.”
In response to Lopez’s claim of only being involved in one drill, Nantel said she would be interested in doing her due diligence and look into that.
“Raising the bar in safety is something that is really important to us and we’re investing millions of dollars to make sure that we can do that,” Nantel said. “Ensuring that we have really good policies, procedures and most importantly practices that help people understand how to take action in inclement weather is really important.”
“Our focus, right now this weekend, is to support our employees in the community during this really somber recognition event. We’ll be at our sites with our employees and honoring those who we lost last year,” she added.
Earlier this week, the Edwardsville City Council observed a moment of silence to remember the victims. They are Clayton Cope, of Alton; Kevin Dickey, of Carlyle; Etheria Hebb, of St. Louis; Austin McEwen, of Edwardsville; DeAndre Morrow, of St. Louis; and Larry Virden, of Collinsville.
Several of the victims’ families and some survivors have filed lawsuits following the tragedy.
The tornado sparked a congressional investigation into Amazon’s workplace safety policies, led by the House Oversight Committee, which counts U.S. Rep. Cori Bush D-St. Louis, as a member. The committee launched an investigation into the company’s severe weather policies in April and by June, members of congress accused Amazon of “obstructing” their investigation by not submitting requested documents as part of the probe.
Nantel told Spectrum News in June and reiterated again Friday that they’ve worked with the committee since the start.
“We’ve been fully supportive since they sent an initial letter asking for an enormous amount of documentation. We’ve produced over 3,500 pages of documents so far. We started producing that after about two weeks after the letter was written to us, and so we’re going to continue fully cooperate with them,” Nantel said.
Spectrum News has reached out to Rep. Bush’s office and is waiting for a response.
In September, Bush introduced the Worker Safety in Climate Disasters Act, to guarantee job and wage protection for workers who walked off the job during a severe weather event, and the Wind Safety Standard Act, which would require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or OSHA, to form a standard “for preventing workplace injuries caused by high winds.” J Lopez is working with Bush on this legislation.
But with less than a month left in the current session of Congress and other issues like the budget still on the table, prospects for the legislation would appear dim, as the bills have not made it out of committee and would likely have to be attached to some other pieces of legislation.
Democrats will lose control of the House at the end of the session, meaning legislative priorities and control of committee investigations will be in the hands of Republicans.
The efforts in congress also have the support of Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin.
“My heart goes out to the victims’ families as they go through yet another holiday season without their loved ones. I have pushed Amazon to develop and implement a stronger emergency action plan at their warehouses and I’m hopeful they will work to ensure the future safety of their workers,” said Sen. Durbin.
The push for change is not just at the federal level, but at the state level too. Illinois HB 1563 would create the Warehouse Safety Standards Task Force Act.
State Rep. Katie Stuart, D-Collinsville, is sponsoring the bill. She represents the community where the tragedy happened.