On June 30, 2021, Washington Law Center learned that dozens of our injured worker clients were potentially affected by a…
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Is Amazon Fulfillment Center “Picking” Work Dangerous?
Working in an Amazon fulfillment center is substantially more dangerous than working in other types of warehouse jobs. This is specifically due to the machine pacing in their facilities as well as Amazon’s expectation that its pickers will each handle 360 or more parcels per hour.
The Seattle Times has reported that Amazon’s warehouses have more costly workplace injury claims than meatpacking, law enforcement agencies or logging. Fulfillment center work is more likely to injure pickers than 260 other Washington industries, according to the Times, which reveals that more than 5,000 people work full-time in Amazon’s Washington fulfillment centers alone. In May of 2021, The Seattle Times continues to report on how Amazon’s relentless pace is injuring workers and violating the law.
What Injuries Are Most Common at Amazon Fulfillment Centers?
The Seattle Times article referenced above indicates that “The most common injuries in fulfillment centers are caused by overexertion, being struck by an object, repetitive motion and falling.” Michael D. Ratko, Deputy Assistant Director of L&I’s Insurance Services Division, is quoted for stating that while these types of injuries are similar to what is seen in other warehouse workplaces, in Amazon fulfillment centers, “there are just more.”
What Has Washington State Done to Recognize Amazon’s Extremely-High Injury Rate?
To reflect the increased risks in Amazon fulfillment centers, the Washington state Department of Labor & Industries placed Amazon’s fulfillment center workers in their own risk classification. This carries a workers’ compensation insurance premium that is 18% higher than is required for any other warehouse workers in the state.
Washington’s new risk classification rules for fulfillment center pickers were adopted on November 30, 2020 and go into effect on January 1, 2021. Copies of the Department’s new rules can be downloaded here.
Due to the substantial number of seriously-injured workers, and the fact that long-term injuries tend to “stack” statistically in data fields over time (more injured workers will be on time-loss and industrial injury pensions over time even if injury rates remain constant), Washington Law Center believes the current Amazon premiums are merely an “introductory rate.”
How Do Amazon’s Fulfillment Center Injury Rates Compare Nationally?
A 2019 investigation by Reveal News journalist, Will Evans, and Reveal’s Center for Investigative Reporting (“CIR”), covered in a CBS News expose here and here on Reveal News’ own website, found that injury rates in fulfillment centers are more than double the national average for the warehousing industry, with 7.7 serious injuries per 100 full-time workers (2019). The rate of serious injuries at the most common type of Amazon fulfillment center, those that ship small- and medium-sized items, was more than 50% higher at warehouses with robots and their associated machine pacing than at warehouses without them (2016 – 2019). Reveal News has provided a handy look-up tool here for injury rates at various Amazon fulfillment centers for the years 2016 – 2019.
Do Amazon Fulfillment Centers Have High Injury Rates In Washington State Also?
In Washington State, according to CIR’s analysis, Amazon’s injury rates are staggering in the DuPont fulfillment center, which literally suffers the highest injury rate in the entire nation (22 serious injuries for every 100 workers in 2019).
The rates of injury in Amazon’s Kent fulfillment center are also approximately three times higher than the national average for warehouse workers (2019). Moreover, Amazon injury rates have trended generally higher over time, especially in robotic/machine-paced warehouses according to CIR reporting. Finally, the highest rates of injury are reported in the weeks involving Prime Day and Cyber Monday.
Reveal investigations have deemed Amazon’s fulfillment centers “injury mills,” due to the company’s obsession with speed. Amazon’s own information indicates that ergonomic issues involving either excessive repetition or bending led to 74% of the injuries reported among pickers who worked in machine-paced warehouses (2018).
Why is Amazon’s Machine Pacing So Dangerous to Fulfillment Center Workers?
Workers’ that pick products from shelves or conveyor systems according to the rapid pacing that’s required in Amazon fulfillment centers statistically more often wear out their bodies, file more claims, and have higher medical care treatment costs as a group than the workers in other less rigorously-paced warehouse environments.
Washington’s decision to place Amazon fulfillment center workers into their own separate risk classification, with significantly-higher insurance premiums, reflects the reality that Amazon’s picking work is extremely demanding and, therefore, extremely dangerous.
Although Amazon attempts to teach its pickers what is known as the “C-grip,” and utilizes other means of trying to control ergonomic risks, the machine pacing for long hours each day results in far more demand than the human body was intended to endure. Over time, more workers suffer cumulative trauma and other workplace accident injuries due to Amazon’s pacing demands.
What Types of Work-Related Injuries are Common for Amazon Pickers to Suffer?
Amazon workers have filed claims for lifting injuries, repetitive trauma conditions, and all other common forms of musculoskeletal break-down. Shoulders, elbows, wrists, and hand joints are particularly vulnerable to repetitive stress (a.k.a. “overuse”) injuries, and therefore these are also some of the most commonly injured body parts among Amazon’s injured workers.
The CMC Joints of the thumbs are at particular risk because joint loading causes stress, inflammation, and eventual joint degeneration. However, the injuries reported among pickers extend also to tendon, nerve, and other soft tissue conditions as well. For example, carpal and cubital tunnel conditions are more likely to result from manual and repetitive labor, including the work performed by Amazon pickers, than will occur in many other forms of less demanding employment.
Hip, knee, ankle, and spine occupational diseases (such as symptomatic degenerative disc disease) are also seen in increased rates for those who have to work at machine-driven pace, on hard floors, in repetitive manual labor.
Is an Amazon Picker’s Injury Covered by Workers’ Compensation (L&I) Even If There Was a Pre-Existing Condition?
An Amazon worker becomes eligible for Industrial Insurance Act coverages (medical or wage loss indemnity benefits such as time loss, LEP, PPD or pension) if their industrial injury is “a proximate cause” of the disability/need for treatment for which benefits are sought. Wendt v. Dep’t of Labor & Indus., 18 Wn. App. 674, 683–684 (1977) (emphasis added). The law does not require that the injury be the sole cause of such disability. Id. Moreover, “the Industrial Insurance Act takes the [Amazon] worker as [it] finds him or her, and bears responsibility for the manner and degree in which any industrial injury or occupational disease manifests itself on that individual.” See, e.g., Groff v. Dep’t of Labor & Indus., 65 Wn.2d 35, 44, 395 P.2d 633 (1964) (“industry takes the workman as he is”); Kallos v. Dep’t of Labor & Indus., 46 Wn.2d 26, 278 P.2d 393 (1955) (“benefits are not limited to those in perfect health”); and Miller v. Dep’t of Labor & Indus., 200 Wash. 674, 94 P.2d 764 (1939) (when injury lights up a pre-existing infirmity, whether due to congenital weakness or previous injury or illness, the resulting disability is to be “attributed to the injury, and not to the preexisting condition.”).
Is an Amazon Picker’s Injury Covered by Workers’ Compensation (L&I) if the Injury or Occupational Disease Only Caused an Aggravation or Lighting Up of Symptoms from a Pre-Existing Condition?
An Amazon worker’s injury must be covered under a Labor & Industries (L&I) claim even if it is merely an aggravation or lighting up of a pre-existing condition. “Aggravation (also referred to as ‘worsening’ or ‘exacerbation’ – the three terms are used synonymously in Washington workers’ compensation) of a preexisting condition occurs when an injured worker has a preexisting condition, symptomatic or asymptomatic, which is made worse by the industrial incident or exposure.” Medical Examiner’s Handbook, July 2019 Update, Chapter 5, Preexisting Conditions, Lighting Up, and Segregation, pg. 36.
Sometimes the concept of “lighting up” applies when referencing an industrially-related medical condition. “Lighting up” of a preexisting condition may be said to occur where:
1) the preexisting condition was not symptomatic [or was lesser symptomatic], and did not result in any limitations [or resulted in lesser limitations] on the worker’s ability to function prior to the industrial incident or exposure;
2) the preexisting condition is now symptomatic [or more symptomatic] and it imposes some [or greater] functional limitations on the worker; and
3) the industrial injury proximately caused the changes in symptomology and functional limitations.
Medical Examiner’s Handbook, July 2019 Update, Chapter 5, Preexisting Conditions, Lighting Up, and Segregation, pg. 37.
Must the Amazon Injured Worker Demonstrate Injury via Objective Evidence?
Amazon workers need not show objective evidence of injury at the time of a claim allowance determination, but they must show at least some objective evidence if they claim permanent partial or permanent total disability at the time of claim closure.
“In situations where an industrial injury aggravates a worker’s pre-existing condition, the lack of objective findings to confirm post-injury worsening does not preclude claim allowance. Where a worker presents credible factual and medical evidence establishing his medical condition worsened following a work injury, a claim can be allowed.” In re MaryAnn Lane, Dckt. No. 18 41307 (Dec. 17, 2019) (citing In re Steve R. Clearwater, Dckt. No. 06 18494 (Dec. 18, 2007)).
This claim allowance standard differs somewhat from the permanent partial disability (PPD) and permanent total disability (PTD) standards used during claim closure analysis. At claim closure, where the concern is generally focused upon questions of permanency, the extent of disability must be established by expert medical testimony, “some of it based upon objective evidence.” Page v. Dep’t of Labor & Indus., 52 Wn.2d 706, 708-709, 328 P.2d 663 (1958).
This difference between claim allowance and claim closure standards exists so that claims can be allowed even just for purposes of obtaining diagnostic imagery to rule out more serious injuries, whereas a claim for permanent injuries must be presented with a higher burden of proof.
What Should You Know If You Are An Injured Amazon Picker?
The State of Washington has long given Amazon “dedicated claims management” services, which is very bad news for Amazon’s injured workers. In the view of Washington Law Center, this type of arrangement guarantees unequal and therefore unfair treatment of Amazon’s workers. Specific state employees interface with Amazon’s defense teams over and over again, until the cooperation between the two can then look a whole lot like collusion.
Amazon’s defense teams learn their specific adjudicators’ tendencies and form relationships that look exactly like workplace friendships with the Department employees who will decide the merits of each next claim contest. Amazon’s defense teams thereby gain advantages over other (less politically-important) employers.
More importantly, in the experience of Washington Law Center, Department employees that have to service the business of such an important company so frequently, and thereby become very friendly with that company’s defense agents, lose some of their objectivity and then make more determinations in favor of the company, especially for “close call” situations. Think about it. If “dedicated claims management” didn’t serve this purpose, why would it even exist?
What Are Additional Helpful Pointers for Injured Amazon Pickers?
Do NOT see the physician recommended to you by your employer!
You have a statutory right to choose your own physician, and you should make that choice for yourself. Stay as far away from employer-recommended physicians as possible, as those physicians often work in healthcare groups that advertise their abilities to keep employer claim costs low.
How do they then achieve the ends they’ve promised in their advertising and business development efforts? By deliberately stating medical opinions that tend to result in denial of advanced diagnostic imagery, time loss benefits, surgical care, vocational retraining opportunities, and permanent partial disability awards, as well as by frequently just deferring to the mercenary opinions of IME physicians.
Note that our state’s most capable physicians who will thoughtfully and painstakingly advocate for all the medical care, retraining benefits, and proper PPD awards that their patients deserve do not need to advertise at all.
Do Washington’s Politicians Fail Our Injured Workers?
Washington Law Center is extremely critical of our deaf, dumb and blind political leadership class in Washington State. Our failing Washington politicians have been so busy running for President (Jay Inslee), or posturing to become the next Governor (Robert Ferguson), they’ve entirely forgotten the struggles of our state’s blue-collar workers.
Jay Inslee appointed long-time bureaucrat, Joel Sacks as Director of Labor & Industries. Director Sacks has since run the Department in a way that is blatantly anti-worker, such as in looking the other way while bogus vocational determinations were being made to send severely injured workers to sham “retraining” programs; failing to police vocational determinations and methods that systematically prejudice elderly injured workers and cheat them out of their industrial insurance act pensions; utilizing a fraudulent and racketeering IME network that literally pays for mercenary physicians to fly into Washington state and weaponized their medical credentials against our injured friends and family members.
Governor Jay Inslee and Attorney General Robert Ferguson have overseen all of this for a period of years, and they are to blame. They cannot fairly be described as anything other than anti-worker in their treatment of our state’s must vulnerable residents. They deserve to be recalled and driven from our state for their malicious incompetence and disregard.
Of course, if we had a functioning press, they would immediately hold Jay Inslee, Robert Ferguson, and Joel Sacks responsible for their cruel negligence towards the needs of our injured workers. They would ask these terrible, self-serving politicians why they have not instead served and promoted the demands of justice by championing literally any of the legislative priorities Washington Law Center has clearly outlined for improving our Industrial Insurance Act for the protection and benefit of injured workers.
Washington Law Center is one of our community’s largest, most involved and most knowledgeable members when it comes to fighting for justice on behalf of our state’s injured worker residents, but yet how often do you think Washington’s elected politicians bother to consider our community’s needs?
What could our terrible and incompetent politicians due as an act of service and leadership? There are many things.
For example, allow all licensed physicians who are in good standing to treat injured workers. Grant the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals equitable powers. Make the Department of Labor & Industries liable for its own wasted litigation expenses, and those of the workers it wastes as well. Stop cheating elderly injured workers by trying to force them to select “option 2” vocational benefits via a fraudulent scheme engineered against them. Police the ridiculously aggressive conduct of Third-Party Administrators. Protect Treating Physicians against the coercive conduct of aggressive defense insurance attorneys by requiring that any meeting with a treating physician must allow the injured worker or their attorney to attend. Relax the rules of evidence and procedure like has been done successfully in many other states, including in New York, so that more injured workers can have their matters heard by industrial appeals judges without having to conform their speech and legal practice to the high arts taught only to attorneys. Be decent and kind to our state’s injured workers for a change.
Do literally ANYTHING to aid and comfort our sick and injured working class. There are so many opportunities, but none of our current political leaders is doing anything for our injured worker community. They care only for themselves, not our blue collar workers.
Does Amazon Fail Its Own Workers?
The problem with Amazon is Jeff Bezos. He’s apparently convinced himself that he can be successful at business without providing for his employees as if they were his own family members. It is very possible to balance the interests of a business with those of its employees in a far more humane way than Amazon and Jeff Bezos have done. This is already self-evident to all of the rest of our community but this reality has apparently not yet dawned on those running Amazon’s elitist culture.
At Washington Law Center, we’ll immediately let you know when Jeff Bezos has a change of heart toward his hardest-working employees; such as for example when he realizes that they and their family members are also his customers (so he should treat them better for one reason or the other). But, please don’t hold your breath waiting for that update based on what we see in the Amazon cases we litigate.
Are there At Least Some Lawyers Known for Fighting Amazon and Winning?
The lawyers of Washington Law Center routinely fight and win in litigation battles against both Amazon and the State of Washington (sometimes only the state’s attorneys are used in the defense of Amazon injury cases; but sometimes private market defense insurance lawyers team up with the state’s attorneys to try and stop us).
For an example of our success, see here a judicial determination in the case of an Amazon fulfillment center worker who had a known pre-existing condition in his left knee prior to claiming a twisting injury at work. Note that the injured worker even saw his own doctor for knee complaints just seventeen (17) days prior to when he claimed he suffered his twisting injury at work. He’d also only been working as an Amazon picker for just nine (9) days when he unfortunately tore his left knee, medial meniscus. Because he’d even had prior left ACL surgery from an old injury suffered years prior, the state defended on a theory that everything was “preexisting.”
Washington Law Center prevailed, and we did so in such convincing fashion that the state didn’t even petition for review of the successful Board of Industrial Insurance decision we obtained. Attorneys Spencer D. Parr and Aaron J. VanderPol II were the injured workers’ litigation attorneys in this particular Amazon case.
All content expressed on this page is the opinion of Spencer D. Parr, Co-Founder of Washington Law Center. If you have questions about this content or your Industrial Insurance Act rights, please contact one of our experienced Washington Law Center L&I attorneys today. Also, please see more of our blog content here and share this page’s content with a friend to help get the word out that Washington State can do better by its injured workers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Spencer Parr is a litigation and trial attorney at Washington Law Center focused primarily in the areas of Labor & Industries claims and injury pension benefits. Before co-founding Washington Law Center, Spencer served in the U.S. Army. He has litigated major issues in the law, represented clients from coast to coast, and dedicated his professional life to assisting the injured and disabled. Click here to learn more about Spencer. View More Labor & Industries and Work Injury Resources.