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Contract workers face growing risk on the job, labor group says

  • A nonprofit advocacy group says more than than 800 contract employees died at work across the U.S. in 2017, up 50 percent from 2011.
  • Since November, six people have died of their injuries on the job at Amazon, according to the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.
  • Amazon says that safety is the retailer's top priority and invites people to tour its facilities.

Contract workers -- those hired by staffing companies and subcontractors -- make up an increasing count of those who die on the job, with Amazon a prime example of how the deadly scenario plays out, according to an advocacy group.

The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a nonprofit coalition of labor unions, health and technical professionals, and other groups  focused on worker safety, cites the ecommerce giant in its latest annual list of companies the group says is putting workers and communities at risk. Given its size, Amazon has long been a target for labor organizing efforts, which have at times complicated its expansion efforts in the U.S., where its workforce is union-free. 

Half a dozen people have died of acute trauma suffered on the job at Amazon since November, NCOSH said. "All six workers who died at Amazon facilities and operations during the past six months were employees of other firms or contract workers, rather than full-time Amazon employees," Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, the group's co-executive director, said Wednesday in a news conference. 

Two contract workers at the company died when the wall of an Amazon warehouse collapsed during a severe storm in Baltimore in November, while another fell to his death in January during construction of an Amazon warehouse in Oildale, California. Three people died in February when an Air Atlas plane carrying cargo for Amazon crashed into a bay southeast of Texas. Weeks before the crash, Atlas Air pilots told Business Insider "they thought an accident was inevitable" due to rapid growth, low pay and inexperienced pilots in the cockpit. 

"When I worked at Amazon, the pace was relentless and it was frequently made clear that management, HR and others in leadership cared a lot more about pushing product out the door than about safety and the well-being of their employees," said David-Jamel Williams, who worked until recently at an Amazon Fulfillment Center in Edison, New Jersey, according to the group.

He described a manager urging him to wash his face and return to work after a chemical from a damaged product splashed into his eyes, causing a burning sensation. "Employees are pressured to be quiet and to perform at insurmountable speeds," Williams said. "Every second of what you do is calculated and held against you. It's a prevalent reality that many Amazon employees face every day."

Amazon invites visitors

Amazon disputes the group's findings. "Safety is our No. 1 priority. While any serious incident is one too many, we learn and improve our programs working to prevent future incidents. Safety training and continuous improvement is something tens of thousands of Amazon associates and partner companies focus on every day," an Amazon spokesperson said by email. 

People concerned with the company's safety practices can sign up for a tour of an Amazon fulfillment center, the spokesperson added. 

In 2017, more than than 800 contract employees died at work across the U.S., up 50 percent from 2011, the council noted in its report. Overall, 5,147 employees died on the job in 2017.

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