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At Amazon Warehouses, Speed Comes At A Price

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Workers at Amazon warehouses will tell you that one of their most valued qualities is speed, and that speed comes at a cost. The podcast "Reveal" from the Center for Investigative Reporting looked at 27 Amazon warehouses nationwide, and it found that most had really high injury rates, some as high as six times the industry average. From member station KUER in Salt Lake City, Sonja Hutson reports on one such Amazon warehouse. And we should note, Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Have you ever wondered how Amazon gets your packages to you so quickly?

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We do it with two things - amazing technology and amazing people.

(CHEERING)

SONJA HUTSON, BYLINE: A video inviting the public to tour Amazon warehouses and see the magic show smiling, hardworking employees. But for former Salt Lake City warehouse worker Derek Parker, that magic wore off with a shoulder injury that still gives him intense pain 10 months later.

DEREK HARPER: You know, like I said, I could just move wrong, I get shooting pain through my arm.

HUTSON: Parker's injury was one of 157 reported at this Salt Lake City Amazon warehouse between January and mid-November just this year - injuries like sprained wrists, strained backs and bruised shoulders. That's according to a review of forms Amazon submitted to the federal workplace safety agency OSHA. The injury rate at this warehouse is more than double the average reported from warehouses in Utah and the nation. That's according to an analysis by KUER of data reported to OSHA and the U.S. Department of Labor.

D HARPER: So obviously, something needs to be changed.

HUTSON: The concerns about working conditions at Amazon warehouses add to growing scrutiny of the company's size, environmental impact and other business practices. In Utah, Parker was one of five workers I spoke with from the Salt Lake City warehouse. They all said production quotas and a focus on speed over safety led to them being injured. Thirty-four-year-old Parker started working at the Amazon Fulfillment Center when it opened in August 2018.

D HARPER: So I expected some, yeah, physical work to be involved. And then, yeah, there was definitely a few things that surprised me. They don't want you sitting down anywhere and resting. Even if there - you know, the conveyor lines were stopped.

HUTSON: Amazon said in a statement it couldn't comment directly on Parker's experience but that all employees get multiple breaks throughout their shifts. Parker says he had only an average of 7 1/2 seconds to grab an item off a conveyor belt, turn around, put it in the right place on a shelf behind him, and...

D HARPER: Once an order was complete, you would push them through to the other side.

HUTSON: Then he would do it again and again and again until his 10-hour shift ended. If Parker didn't move fast enough, he says he could get a write-up. With three write-ups, workers said you could be fired. Parker's wife, Carrie, says the fear of losing his job created a lot of pressure on their family. They have a 9-year-old daughter.

CARRIE PARKER: And you don't know if the next week, if he was going to meet his rates. And if he did, then great; we were good for another week. But then the next week, I don't know.

HUTSON: The day he got injured in February, Parker already had two write-ups.

D HARPER: And so I was going faster and trying to, you know, put more product through.

HUTSON: And that's how he strained his rotator cuff, turning to grab the next item. Amazon says its injury rates appear high because the company reports injuries more than others in the industry. It says it provides coaching for employees having trouble meeting production requirements. Amazon also says safety is its top priority.

But Parker and the other workers I spoke with say the reality is, speed always came first. Regulatory agencies haven't yet figured out how to address this wave of injuries among workers who sort and ship packages across America. Eric Olsen is with the Utah Labor Commission, which handles workplace safety in the state. He says the injuries at the Salt Lake City Amazon warehouse did not warrant an investigation because they were not severe enough, like a lost limb or a hospitalization.

ERIC OLSEN: We've had a very limited number of complaints that were filed, but they weren't complaints that warranted investigation.

HUTSON: Although Derek Parker's injury wasn't bad enough to report to the labor commission, he says he's still in severe pain to this day.

D HARPER: So there's still some nights that I don't go to sleep until 2:00, 3:00 in the morning just because it hurts so bad.

HUTSON: That affects his ability to do his new job as a graphic designer and to help out around the house. Parker says that temporary Amazon job has had a lasting impact on his life and on his family. But he still orders from Amazon. Fast, free delivery is too good to pass up.

For NPR News, I'm Sonja Hutson in Salt Lake City.

SHAPIRO: And this story used information from Reveal's Reporting Networks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.