OSHA Opens Investigation Into Deadly Collapse of Illinois Amazon Warehouse During Tornado

On Monday, the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration said it has opened an investigation into the deadly collapse of an Illinois Amazon Warehouse after it was hit by a tornado.

OSHA inspectors, who have been at the warehouse since Saturday, will investigate if workplace safety rules were followed and have six months to finish the investigation, spokesperson Scott Allen said.

The warehouse, located in Edwardsville, Illinois, was struck by the tornado Friday, resulting in the deaths of six people and the hospitalization of another. The tornado was so strong that twisted metal from the Amazon warehouse was strewn across a field near Edwardsville resident Bob Craft's home and wrapped around trees, said Craft. He said the warehouse used to be visible from the back of his home.

"What did the damage was all the debris going through like a bulldozer," Craft said.

Amazon said there was little time for workers at the warehouse to prepare when the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning Friday night. The warnings came between 8:06 p.m. and 8:16 p.m., at which time site leaders ordered workers to take shelter immediately. The tornado arrived at 8:27 p.m., caving in the facility's roof and collapsing both sides of it.

"There was a tremendous effort that happened that night to keep everybody safe," John Felton, Amazon's senior vice president of global delivery services, said on Monday while speaking alongside Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker in Edwardsville, promising a review of the events that happened Friday.

Felton said a majority of the 46 people in the facility called a "delivery station" went to a shelter on the north side, which was "nearly undamaged" after, while a smaller group went to the harder-hit south end. The company said the places are away from windows and considered safer than other parts of the plant, but not separate safe rooms.

Tornado, Amazon Warehouse, Illinois, OSHA Investigation
A heavily damaged Amazon fulfillment center is seen Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, in Edwardsville, Illinois. A large section of the roof of the building was ripped off and walls collapsed when strong storms moved through area Friday night. Jeff Roberson/AP Photo

Amazon has pledged to assist workers and their families affected by the tragedy, including donating $1 million to the Edwardsville Community Foundation. The company declined to answer questions Monday about its disaster plans at the plant, including whether employees were required to perform drills.

The tornado that hit Amazon's facility was part of a swarm of twisters across the Midwest and South that leveled entire communities. Another tornado destroyed a candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, killing multiple workers on an overnight shift. OSHA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Labor, said federal investigators are not investigating the Kentucky factory collapse because the state has its own workplace safety agency.

The Edwardsville warehouse is part of a vast patchwork of concrete-and-steel structures that have popped up in the St. Louis region over the past decade, drawn by its confluence of major highways and railroads, cheap costs and Americans' expectations for getting packages delivered soon after they click a link to order them.

A researcher who studies the warehouse industry and the pressure put on Amazon workers to meet strict productivity quotas said even if Amazon's team did everything right in responding to a devastating tornado, it raises the question about the structure of enormous warehouses popping up across the Midwest as some climate experts warn of more frequent severe storms.

"We don't think of warehousing as one of the industries that's going to be severely impacted by climate change but then you have a case like this," said Beth Gutelius, research director at the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois-Chicago. "How do we make sure the facilities are built in a way to best protect the workers inside?"

Gutelius said its central location and cheaper costs has led the warehouse industry to triple over the past decade in the greater St. Louis area, of which Edwardsville is a part, growing faster than the industry nationwide. She said the pressure on warehouse and delivery workers is particularly high in the holiday period, especially at Amazon because of its promise of rapid deliveries and its artificial intelligence technology for moving goods and monitoring workers' performance.

At the governor's press conference Monday, Nantel emphasized that the 1.1-million square foot building was "constructed consistent with code."

But Pritzker raised the possibility that current codes aren't enough to meet the dangers of increasingly devastating storms. He said there will be an investigation into updating code "given serious change in climate that we are seeing across the country."

Amazon announced plans in June 2016 to build two warehouses in Edwardsville, saying they would create 1,000 full-time jobs. One was meant to handle large items such as big-screen TVs and sports equipment, according to a June 2016 article in the Edwardsville Intelligencer. The other was for smaller items such as books, toys and handheld electronics.

Marc Wulfraat, a supply chain consultant who has studied Amazon's warehouses and distribution centers, says the one in Edwardsville appeared standard for the industry with 40-foot concrete walls, not unlike many others popping up around the country as consumers shift from stores to online buying.

"It was basically a warehouse, with nothing particularly distinctive to Amazon," said Wulfratt, president of MWPVL International, a consultancy in Montreal. "They abide by code when they put these buildings up. There is no way around it."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Tornado, Amazon Warehouse, Illinois, OSHA Investigation
Amazon said there was little time for workers at the warehouse to prepare when the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning Friday night, as the warnings came between 8:06 p.m. and 8:16 p.m. and the tornado arrived at 8:27 p.m. In this photo, recovery operations continue after the partial collapse of an Amazon Fulfillment Center in Edwardsville, Illinois, on Dec. 12, 2021. Tim Vizer/AFP via Getty Images