Warehouse Workers’ Deaths Prompt Renewed Scrutiny of Amazon’s No-Phone Policy

Amazon’s strict no-phone policy is drawing renewed national attention after a tornado in Edwardsville, Illinois caused one of the company’s warehouses to collapse, killing six workers.

A tornado ripped the roof off of the Edwardsville warehouse on Friday evening, collapsing its 11-inch concrete walls and killing six Amazon employees. That same day, over 20 tornadoes tore through Illinois, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee, killing dozens of people.

The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center warned of a “damaging wind and tornado threat” shortly before the storm reached the facility. But because of a longstanding company policy that bans cell phones at worksites, it’s unclear if workers at the Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville ever received that warning.

The no-phone policy was reduced during the pandemic, but it has gradually been reintroduced at a number of facilities throughout the U.S. However, Amazon denies that the company has reimplemented the policy at all.

Company representatives told Gizmodo that Edwardsville workers were sent “various alerts” about the tornado that hit the facility on Friday.

But that hasn’t alleviated safety concerns for thousands of workers across the U.S, several of whom publicly condemned the policy.

At least six Amazon employees spoke to Bloomberg about the phone ban, including some who worked directly across the street from the facility that collapsed on Friday. If the policy makes a full return, they warned, workers won’t be able to receive alerts about impending storms and natural disasters — which could potentially lead to more deaths in the workplace.

“After these deaths, there is no way in hell I am relying on Amazon to keep me safe,” one Illinois-based worker said. “If they institute the no cell phone policy, I am resigning.”

A worker in Indiana told Bloomberg that she plans on using sick days to avoid being at her worksite during inclement weather.

“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.”

A third worker was sure that Amazon was ready to reimplement the policy throughout the company. “They’ll ban phones again. They don’t give a shit about the workers,” the worker predicted.

Many social media users said that Amazon was responsible for the deaths at its Edwardsville warehouse.

“Amazon is responsible for these deaths — their unbridled drive to extract the most value from their warehouse workers meant leaving them vulnerable to disaster,” wrote Honda Wang, a representative for the New York City Democratic Socialists of America.

“How many workers must die for Amazon to have a policy for extreme weather events?” sociologist Nantina Nantina Vgontzas asked, noting that the company has a history of keeping its workers in place during severe weather events.

Some commentators noted historical parallels between Amazon’s no-phone policy and other workplace disasters, including the New York Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 workers in 1911.

“The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was so deadly because management locked the doors to ‘prevent theft’ and keep out union organizers,” said CNN editor Michael Ballaban, sharing a link that referenced the Amazon warehouse deaths.

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