The Amazon warehouse in West Humboldt Park, 1260 N. Kostner Ave., on Aug. 31, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

WEST HUMBOLDT PARK — After a yearlong delay, Amazon opened its West Humboldt Park warehouse last week, bringing hundreds of jobs to the West Side.

But workers’ rights organizations hope to win safer conditions at the facility than at the retail giant’s other warehouses serving Chicago. The rate of serious injury at 14 of Amazon’s 15 Chicago-area warehouses is above the statewide average for general warehousing, according to injury records and federal workplace data.

Serious injury rates at most Chicago-area Amazon warehouses are double the statewide average, an analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration data by Block Club Chicago shows. At the warehouse facility in suburban Romeoville, where nearly 800 people work, the serious injury rate is 12.3 percent, over three times the state average of 3.4 percent.

An Amazon warehouse in southwest suburban Wilmington that employs almost 200 workers has a serious injury rate of nearly 16 percent, more than quadruple the state average for the industry.

The nearest general warehouses to Chicago also have serious injury rates well above the state average. The serious injury rate at the warehouse in suburban Skokie is 7.6 percent, over twice the state average.

At the warehouse in Country Club Hills, the rate is 8.7 percent, while the warehouse in Matteson has a severe injury rate of 8.5 percent. Workers at the warehouse in University Park are injured at a rate of 10.3 percent, data shows.

Now, labor groups that fought to safeguard the West Side project from a wave of closures and cancellations of planned Amazon facilities are urgently working to ensure workers at the new warehouse won’t be risking their safety to earn a living.

Many Amazon warehouse injuries “are a result of speed-ups” due to high quotas, said Dan Giloth, an organizer for labor group Black Workers Matter. Since muscular and skeletal injuries are common due to repeated motions that quickly wear down the body, worker safety has been at the top of the agenda of labor groups, Giloth said.

“The rate of work is just too high. It’s not that you’re handling super heavy packages every minute. But the repetition, the speed, it’s dangerous,” he said.

Serious Injury Rates Increased In Recent Years At Some Warehouses

Work injuries are a serious issue in the warehousing industry, with an overall incidence rate of 5.6 percent of workers nationwide, according to the most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But for total injuries and serious injuries — those where a worker must take time off, transfer to a less rigorous role or work with restrictions — Amazon’s warehouses consistently report injuries at rates far above state and national averages.

A spokesperson for Amazon said the company has invested over $1 billion in safety initiatives and reduced serious injury rates nationwide by nearly 70 percent since 2019.

“We take the health and safety of our employees very seriously … . And we’ll continue working to get better every day. As the West Humboldt Park facility opens its doors next week, we’re excited to greet our new employees and see the neighborhood initiatives that have resulted from three years of partnership with local leaders and organizations,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

But at many Chicago-area facilities, serious injury rates have increased since 2019, including at the Romeoville, Skokie, Monee, Joliet and Aurora warehouses, data shows.

Besides warehouses, Amazon operates many delivery and courier facilities in Chicago. Delivery facilities have very different risks and injury rates, and for those facilities Amazon is not such an outlier. About 8 percent of delivery workers nationally are injured each year, and many Chicago Amazon delivery facilities are below that level, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The West Humboldt Park location is a rapid response center that will store common goods that Amazon can deliver to customers within hours of receiving an order. These types of facilities are categorized as general warehouses in national Occupational Safety and Health Administration records, rather than delivery centers, and they have similar injury rates to other warehouses. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration began releasing facility-level worker injury data on a selection of large companies in 2020 after a federal judge ruled in favor of the Center for Investigative Reporting in a case that determined injury logs are not confidential.

The Amazon warehouse in West Humboldt Park, 1260 N. Kostner Ave., on Aug. 31, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

A Demanding Model

Amazon’s promise of lightning-fast deliveries to dominate the retail market also puts workers at a heightened risk for injuries, said Lee Freidman, co-director for the Illinois Injury Prevention Center and professor of occupational health science at University of Illinois Chicago’s School of Public Health.

“Customers are pretty demanding to get their items in 24 hours. … The company then pushes their workforce to work harder and faster,” Friedman said. “When you make human beings work in repetitive and rigid routines for long times, it’s terrible for the human body.”

More than other companies in the warehousing industry, Amazon’s business model relies on quickly adapting to changes in demand, Freidman said. During seasonal shopping frenzies, Amazon quickly hires inexperienced workers who “leave the job after that cycle ends,” Friedman said.

“The newer employees have a higher risk of injury. With more traditional warehousing, which does not go through as much cycling as Amazon, you have longer longevity of those employees,” Friedman said.

Amazon’s notorious hostility toward unionization also plays a role in the heightened injury rates, Friedman said. Unions allow workers to feel safe to report an injury without fear of retribution, he said.

“They’re more likely to report an injury. That means safety officers are more likely to see there is a repeated injury, so they’re more likely to address the hazard that’s causing the injury,” Friedman said.

When workers lack a voice and have no influence over their workplace conditions, employees often face impossible production standards that put them in danger, said Bobby Frierson, a former warehouse worker and an organizer for Warehouse Workers for Justice.

“The promise that Amazon gives their customers is that they can have their product at your door by the next day,” Frierson said. “But 50 people got to run around like a chicken with their heads cut off to make that happen.”

The most common injuries due to high work speeds are muscular and skeletal injuries, particularly injuries due to wear and tear on the rotator cuff, Frierson said.

Warehouse workers at other companies who are represented by Teamsters are supporting the push for better wages, safer working conditions and the right for Amazon workers to unionize. Across the industry, the nature of fast-paced warehouse work puts workers at risk for back injuries, pulled muscles and joint strains from repetitive motions, said David Hogdahl, a 26-year warehouse worker for United Parcel Service and a longtime union steward for Teamsters.

“We’re always going to support bettering wages and working conditions, safer working conditions,” Hogdahl said. “They have a right to have a seat at the table and have their safety concerns addressed, and I’m going to stand in solidarity with them.”

Only one Amazon warehouse nationwide has a recognized union: the JFK8 facility in New York City.

Protestors speaking outside of Ald. Emma Mitts office about the unopened Amazon facility in the neighborhood. Credit: Trey Arline

‘Everyone Expects A Lot From Amazon, Especially Jobs’

Local leaders are looking forward to the benefits of having a large employer coming to the neighborhood.

Amazon initiated partnerships with organizations like the West Humboldt Park Development Corporation to support efforts like community bike rides and the West Humboldt Park Festival, said Executive Director Adrienne Boykin-White. She expects the project to inject money into the local economy, and her organization has worked to connect Amazon with local businesses like restaurants and catering companies to provide services for the warehouse, she said.

“That space that’s sat vacant for years, it was an eyesore for the residents,” she said. “Everyone knows Amazon, everyone expects a lot from Amazon, especially jobs.”

While the neighborhood might benefit from the jobs Amazon will bring, safety is still a serious concern. Local organizations and labor groups will need to continue to hold the company accountable to supporting worker safety as well as the right for workers to unionize to improve their conditions, Boykin-White said.

“I will stay on top of them to deliver what they promised to the community and providing jobs. And job safety, with a facility like that, it has to be the No. 1 priority. It’s large, and it’s warehouse work, and people have to be trained properly to do it,” Boykin-White said. “Your body does get tired. And within that, there’s going to be accidents.”

Labor organizations like Warehouse Workers for Justice, Teamsters and Black Workers Matter have held a series of demonstrations to pressure Amazon to follow through on plans to open the West Humboldt facility.

Company officials initially said the facility would bring about 500 jobs to the West Side, and labor organizers pushed to ensure a majority of jobs would go to local residents. Amazon initially planned to open the warehouse last year, but after construction on the building finished, opening plans were indefinitely postponed as Amazon delayed or canceled dozens of facilities nationwide as part of cost-cutting measures.

The warehouse opened with about 150 fewer jobs than initially promised and no commitments to local hiring.

Ongoing efforts from labor organizations as well as neighborhood groups like the West Humboldt Park Community Coalition show workers are rejecting the notion that “if you want jobs, you’ve got to give up rights,” said Dan Giloth, an organizer for Black Workers Matter.

Since plans for the warehouse went public in 2021, labor and neighborhood groups have worked together to draft a Community Benefits Agreement that includes a local hiring quota, a pollution plan, property tax relief and guaranteed working conditions, including a $28.50 starting wage.

“Workers increasingly are rejecting this idea that just because I need a job, you can treat me any kind of way,” Giloth said.

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) has long supported the retail giant’s new West Humboldt Park facility due to the jobs it would inject into her ward. Mitts defended Amazon’s injury rates and said her office was working with the company to improve safety measures.

“… Let’s give [Amazon] an opportunity to showcase their strategies. They will also have robotic support, and in my discussions with local management about workplace safety, the company has indicated their commitment to … processes which could mitigate these workplace situations,” Mitts said.

Worker rights laws have historically had the most teeth at the federal level, such as through workplace safety inspections. But several states have passed laws to protect warehouse workers.

A 2022 California law protects employees from unreasonable quotas that stop workers from taking rest periods and meal breaks. Workers are also protected from seasonal speed-ups by requirements for employers to notify staff of quotas ahead of time. Similar laws have also passed in Washington, Minnesota and New York.

State Rep. Kevin Olickal, a Democrat representing Chicago, this year introduced the Warehouse Worker Protection Act, which would offer similar transparency and limitations around quotas.

“They should know right away to know whether the quota will allow them to meet safety standards. That protects the worker from an unreasonable work pace,” Olickal said.

Most importantly, workers need a voice in determining the terms of their contracts to reduce injuries, Frierson said. While Amazon’s recruitment focuses on “people they know won’t complain because they think they can’t,” labor advocacy organizations and neighborhood groups “want workers to have a say,” he said.

“You don’t have any voice; you either do it or you get out,” Frierson said. “The rate of work is ridiculous, which causes you to injure yourself.”

Help Block Club Get
500 More Subscribers!

Subscribe to Block Club now and you’ll get a free 16-by-20-inch Chicago neighborhood print of your choice, helping us reach our goal of getting 500 more subscribers before 2024. Click here to subscribe or click here to gift a subscription.

Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: