The Fight for Amazon’s Injury Data
A dispute has erupted over Amazon’s withholding of government-mandated logs of injuries and illnesses at its warehouses. A federal judge calls it disturbing, but Amazon says it’s commercially sensitive.
A lawsuit filed by the Center for Investigative Reporting against the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) regards one of the world’s largest corporate goliaths: Amazon.
Amazon has never really had a great reputation for workplace injuries. There’s been many testimonies on workers’ dissatisfaction of how the company treated their injuries and illnesses. Within the last few months during the coronavirus pandemic, this reputation has only gone under more fire after many workers complained about the company’s safety measures and lack of employee safeguards.
The center sued the U.S. Department of Labor in September 2019 after OSHA refused to turn over workplace safety records for Amazon warehouses in Massachusetts, Ohio and Illinois, explains one article.
After the suit was filed, OSHA “released employee statements provided to OSHA investigators for Amazon’s Stoughton, Massachusetts warehouse and a few pages of heavily redacted Form 300As, logs of workplace injuries and illnesses, for warehouses in Ohio and Illinois.” Still, the center is challenging the redactions and withholding of injury logs—which, according to the government, are “necessary to protect confidential business information.”
One side (the center) is appalled that a company would withhold injury data, and the U.S. Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim called it “disturbing.” However, the U.S. Department of Labor defends its decision, quoting a June 2019 policy decision in the Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media case that ruled “disclosure of food stamp spending data at specific stores could financially harm retailers.”
Because Amazon believed the injury logs would remain confidential, the DOL’s attorney, Pamela Johann, “insisted the data falls within Exemption 4 of the Freedom of Information Act, which exempts sensitive business information from disclosure.”
Even Amazon’s vice president of workplace safety and health, Heather McDougall, told the court in a written statement that Amazon considers the injury date to be commercially sensitive. “Injury statistics can affect the company’s insurance rates, and the data guides decisions on where it allocates resources to reduce injuries and illnesses,” said the article.
The injury reporting rule, which has since been party retracted by the Trump administration, also required workplace injury logs be released to current and former employees upon request. It also required that employers post the logs in workplaces where employees can see them for three months each year.
Federal Judge Kim asked if an Amazon employee who receives that information is allowed to disclose it. Johann, Amazon’s attorney, said “Yes, but when Amazon provides that information, it provides it with an explicit warning that the information is confidential.”
Judge Kim voiced her discomfort with the idea that Amazon is marking documents “confidential” when the law requires they be disclosed, saying “that’s disturbing if it’s not confidential under the law.”
To this, Johann responded that the data is meant to be used by companies for health and safety purposes, not for disclosure to the general public. She noted that the regulation did not ask that the data be publicly shared or that the employee could use it for anything other than the employee’s own personal use.
Representing the Center for Investigative Reporting, attorney Diana Baranetsky argued that no such ban on public disclosure exists in the regulation. The rule includes no fines or sanctions for employees who disclose the information, she said.
The lawsuit is still underway. However, it is also important to note that in January 2019, the Labor Department published a final rule rescinding requirements that companies submit annual reports on workplace injuries and illnesses.
Three public health advocacy groups and six states—Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and New York—filed two separate lawsuits against the rollback last year. Both lawsuits are still pending in the District of Columbia federal court.