Amazon workers kept at facility as 'unknown vaporized substance' spread

“Why is my health less important than a package getting shipped?”

Isaiah Thomas, Bessemer factory worker

An aerial image shows the, Inc. BHM1 fulfillment center on March 29, 2021 in Bessemer, Al...

A compressor on the third floor of the Bessemer, Alabama Amazon warehouse malfunctioned Friday afternoon, spraying a substance believed to be vaporized oil into air vents and quickly clouding the floor. No workers outside the third floor were notified of the event, according to the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU).

Workers on the third floor were reportedly asked to leave the facility on (unpaid) Voluntary Time Off and evacuate. Meanwhile, as the unidentified substance spread through the factory’s air circulation system, the remainder of the factory was left to continue its work.

Four hours later, based only on word of mouth and the appearance of a smoke-like substance throughout the building, other workers began to leave the facility.

“At first, I thought my glasses were just smudged, but then the air got thicker, and my co-worker said he thought it was smoke and we should leave,” Isaiah Thomas, a worker at the factory, said in a statement. “We didn’t know what was happening and many of us sought safety in our cars and tried to get as far away from the building as possible.”

No notification whatsoever — According to a timeline put together by the RWDSU, workers on the third floor of the facility were told to evacuate around 1:30 p.m. CT. It wasn’t until 4:30 p.m. that workers on the first floor of the building say they began seeing what appeared to be smoke.

The Bessemer facility reportedly utilizes quite a few methods to communicate with workers, including Go screens, the “A to Z” app, and face-to-face communication. Managers did not send out any notifications about the incident on the third floor.

When more workers started leaving around 5:45 p.m., it was only because they’d heard about the vapor via word-of-mouth. At this point, some fire and police vehicles had reportedly arrived.

But by 7:00 p.m. workers were already being told to clock in for the overnight shift. They reported some “cloudiness” still visible in the building as they entered.

Amazon’s take — Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel told Input the following:

“[The RWDSU president’s] claims are false. Yesterday an air compressor malfunction resulted in smoke emitting from the equipment. Out of an abundance of caution, we evacuated the facility and called the local fire department who responded and quickly evaluated and cleared the site. We’re thankful no one was injured and we appreciate the swift actions of the Bessemer Fire Department.”

Thank you, unions — It’s currently unknown whether or not the substance in question could cause harm to any of the workers exposed to it. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has been notified, according to the RWDSU.

Amazon workers at this very Bessemer facility are actually in the process of unionizing through the RWDSU — and it’s likely the public wouldn’t have been made aware of this incident without the organization. At least not without it coming from Amazon’s mouth, with Amazon’s spin.

As if to really hammer home the importance of unions, the incident happened to fall on the 111th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, wherein 146 workers died as the NYC factory they worked in burned to the ground. The fire led to legislation mandating safer factory conditions — a legacy of safe standards Amazon has never felt it necessary to live up to.

Packages over people — Amazon’s treatment of its factory workers has long been the subject of scrutiny, both by watchdogs and the general public. Most instances are barely a blip in the news cycle, though the pandemic has, at some points, made Amazon’s priorities very clear for the public.

This is far from the first time workers’ lives have been put in jeopardy for the sake of keeping packages moving. In December of last year, an Amazon warehouse in Illinois collapsed, killing six workers and injuring others. In that instance, at least one employee was specifically told to continue working, even as a deadly tornado approached.

“Workers’ lives should never be put in jeopardy for profits, something Amazon has an inexcusable history of doing,” said Stuart Applebaum, president of the RWDSU, in a statement. “Amazon must be held accountable for this.”