The Trent and Mersey Canal in Rugeley affords a pleasant walk in an area of outstanding beauty. Maria drives past it every day on her way to the Amazon warehouse just a stone’s throw away. She’s never stopped by for a leisurely stroll in the years she’s been working here. Why would she, after a gruelling ten-hour shift on her feet handling hundreds of heavy packages at breakneck speed? ‘It’s a very long walk from one side of the warehouse to the other. It damages you physically. Most of us do overtime to make ends meet. We don’t get time for anything else.’
The work here is fast-paced and physically demanding. Coupled with a draconian system of surveillance and impossible targets, it is a recipe for disaster when it comes to health and safety. Injury rates at Amazon warehouses have long attracted scrutiny and criticism. In May 2018, a Freedom of Information request from the GMB union revealed that there had been 115 ambulance callouts to the Amazon warehouse in Rugeley. This compares with only eight calls in total to a nearby Tesco warehouse of a similar size over the same period.
In 2021, freedom of Information requests from the Daily Mirror to nine ambulance trusts found that from January 2018 to August 2021, 971 ambulance callouts were made to Amazon warehouses in the UK — the equivalent of up to five a week. In Tilbury alone, where a male employee died in 2021, 178 ambulance callouts were made.
For most companies, these revelations would serve as a wake-up call. A shocking indictment of a workplace culture that appears to cut corners on health and safety in the pursuit of profit. But instead of addressing the cause of the controversy, it appears that Amazon has decided to cover it up. In shocking revelations, Amazon workers from across the UK have detailed to Tribune how they’ve been discouraged from calling ambulances when injured at work, being told instead to make their own way to hospital or to take a taxi.
Maria joined Amazon at the height of the pandemic. It wasn’t long before she raised serious health and safety concerns about conditions at the company’s warehouse in Rugeley. ‘Items were being stored on the top shelves. There were boxes on top of boxes that could fall and hit you on the head.’ Maria says her concerns were ignored, bemoaning a broader pattern of neglect where worker wellbeing is routinely overlooked. ‘They don’t really want ambulances to come on-site. Sometimes, they will offer to pay for the taxi,’ explains Maria. ‘They started doing it after there was something in the papers about Amazon calling too many ambulances at their sites.’
Maria recounts a colleague who slipped on ice at the entrance of the Rugeley warehouse in February. ‘She broke her arm and hit her head really bad. She needed an ambulance to take her to hospital mainly because of the hit she took to her head. But Amazon didn’t call an ambulance. They told her she had to make her own way to the hospital. Her arm was broken and she needed surgery.’
In another incident, in April this year, Maria recalls a colleague who wasn’t feeling very well during her shift. ‘She had symptoms of a stroke, so she rang her doctor. The doctor told her she needed to go to the hospital and it would not be okay for her to drive. When she went to the health and safety desk, they told her they would not call an ambulance for her and that she would have to make her own way to hospital.’
In Doncaster, Amazon workers make similar allegations. ‘Amazon don’t really call out ambulances anymore,’ says Chris, who has been working for the company for the past few years. ‘They ask workers if they can get themselves to the hospital. “Can you drive? Can you phone up somebody to pick you up and drop you to the hospital?” These are the conversations that people have.’
If workers have no transport and no one to take them to the hospital, Chris alleges that Amazon pays for a taxi to take them there. ‘They have a contract with one of the local taxi firms in Doncaster. It goes on to their account. That happens a hell of a lot. I had to go to the hospital last year, and they did that for me.’
This isn’t the first time that Amazon has been accused of a health and safety cover-up. In 2019, following the GMB union’s investigation into ambulance callout rates, Amazon claimed on its website: ‘According to the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) RIDDOR, Amazon has 43% fewer injuries on average than other transportation and warehousing companies in the UK.’
However, after the GMB wrote to the HSE to query this, the HSE replied to say that it ‘does not recognise’ the company’s claim.
Rachel Fagan, GMB Union Organiser, said, ‘These accounts are very similar to the shocking practices members have described to me, where Amazon will go to such lengths to protect their public images that they risk workers’ lives.’
This is the reality behind one-click e-commerce consumerism. The well-being of warehouse workers is routinely sacrificed in the name of efficiency and profit. It is no wonder that Amazon workers are fighting back. More than 1,000 Amazon workers at the Amazon warehouse in Coventry are set to walk out on 7, 8 and 9 November, as well as 24 November for Black Friday. These walkouts will bring the total number of days lost to strike action this year to 30 — and workers are clear they are prepared to fight as long as they have to. The headline demand is pay, but at its heart, as is so often the case in industrial disputes, this is a fight to be treated with basic respect, decency and dignity.
An Amazon spokesperson said, ‘Amazon has more than 50% fewer injuries on average compared to other transportation and warehousing businesses. The vast majority of ambulance call-outs to our buildings are related to pre-existing conditions, not work-related incidents.’
The Health and Safety Executive have been contacted to verify these claims.