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Amazon under fire for phone ban as 6 killed in Illinois warehouse when tornado struck

Amazon is facing a backlash after six of its workers died inside a warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, when a roof and other parts of the building collapsed as violent storms, including a tornado, ripped through the region on Friday night.

Up to 100 people were believed to be inside the Amazon warehouse, where they were working the late-night shift during the Christmas rush, when the tornado hit. The search reportedly continues for other workers who were trapped in the warehouse.

 

The incident at the warehouse was labelled a “mass casualty event,” reported Jenna Rae of local news outlet KMOV-TV in St. Louis. Late on Friday evening, Rae reported that around two dozen workers were transported from the facility on Madison County Transit buses, while a medical evacuation helicopter landed at the scene a short time later. Excavators were seen removing debris as the search and rescue effort continued early on Saturday morning.

Amazon is now under fire for allowing workers to come in for their shifts despite repeated weather warnings, along with their policy of not allowing staff to have phones on their person during shifts. Jeff Bezos’s delayed response to the tragedy has also been criticised.

“Amazon has BANNED warehouse workers from keeping their phones on them. Amazon doesn’t keep workers safe and prevents them from keeping themselves safe,” one person said on Twitter.

 

Amazon founder and executive chairman Bezzos took 24 hours to respond publicly to the tragedy while he celebrated his Blue Origin space trip.

“We’re deeply saddened by the news that members of our Amazon family passed away as a result of the storm in Edwardsville, Illinois. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their loved ones, and everyone impacted by the storm,” Amazon said in a statement.

The company’s safety restrictions mean that workers are sometimes banned from having mobile phones on their person during work hours. This meant that workers were trapped inside the factory unable to raise the alarm. One Amazon worker who wanted to remain anonymous told Bloomberg: “After these deaths, there is no way in hell I am relying on Amazon to keep me safe. I am resigning,”

Bloomberg also reported that another worker from a separate Amazon warehouse in Indiana said she is using her paid time off whenever the company takes the decision to remain open despite warnings of extreme weather events. Having her phone with her is critical to making decisions, especially about sudden tornado risks, the staff member said.

“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.”

Amazon declined to comment on concerns raised by workers about its policy on mobile phones, saying that its focus now is “on assisting the brave first responders on the scene and supporting our affected employees and partners in the area.”

The Associated Press reports that a section of the warehouse wall the size of a football field collapsed, along with the roof above it, at about 8.30pm on Friday night. Workers at the Amazon warehouse were reportedly told to show up for their shifts despite pressing tornado warnings throughout the region on Friday.

Just two and a half hours before tragedy struck, at 5:59pm on Friday, a warning report was issued that reiterated previous weather warnings during Thursday night and Friday. On Thursday morning, the National Weather Service (NWS) in Saint Louis, Missouri, warned of possible tornadoes, with the first report made at 3.44am CST on Thursday morning.

“There is a chance of thunderstorms late Friday afternoon into night across south-eastern and east-central Missouri as well as south-central and southwestern Illinois. A few thunderstorms could become strong to severe in south-eastern Missouri and southwestern Illinois late Friday evening into night. The main threat will be strong to damaging wind gusts, but a tornado is also possible,” the NWS said.

“Some say tornadoes are harder to predict than other events. But a tornado watch was issued for Madison County hours before the warehouse was hit. Amazon proceeded w a shift change, and w the knowledge that it lacked proper shelter. It didn’t even lift the ban on worker phone use,” a critical tweet read. It was also highlighted that in 2018, Amazon workers died when a tornado struck a Baltimore warehouse.

“Amazon had 3 years to prepare, not to mention the lessons it theoretically learned about emergency preparedness from the pandemic.”

 

Online, there was also significant anger over the company’s policy to ban phones on the factory floor which was described as being “intended to maximise profit” at “the expense of human lives.”

“How sad would it be if your loved one was trapped and could not call for emergency assistance because Amazon banned mobile phones?” another social media user asked.

 

California state Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez asked her followers: “Can you imagine your employer denying you the right to even access emergency alerts?”

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