December 21, 2021

December 21, 2021 by Edward Segal

It’s often a matter of time after a disaster or other crisis when an investigation is launched to find out what happened, how, why and the lessons to be learned. In the wake of a historic crisis, the investigation is likely to happen sooner rather than later.

On Monday, OSHA began a probe into Friday’s deadly collapse of the Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois that was destroyed by one of the 60 tornadoes that hit nine states Friday and Saturday.

It did not take long for the investigative process to start. OSHA inspectors arrived at the site of the Amazon fulfillment center on Saturday, according to the Washington Post. In a 10-word statement, Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel summarized the agency’s mission and the retailer’s role in their probe this way: “OSHA investigates all workplace fatalities and we are supporting them.”

When And How Results Will Be Known

CNBC reported that, “OSHA has six months to complete its probe, issue citations and propose monetary penalties if violations of workplace safety and/or health regulations are found, OSHA spokesperson Scott Allen told CNBC in a statement.”

Harry Nelson is the founder and managing partner of the Nelson Hardiman law firm. He observed that, “While most OSHA violations receive little public attention, in cases like the Amazon disaster, media attention will mean that the report findings and penalties will be known immediately, and the public will know as soon as the report is filed.

“OSHA maintains enforcement oversight to verify that any corrective action is taken to remediate any problems,” according to Nelson.

Additional Investigations Possible

Michael Zweiback is a partner at the law firm of Zweiback Fiset & Coleman. He noted that, “On occasion, where an OSHA investigator believes the incident of workplace safety could rise to a level of criminal negligence, the case may be referred to the local district attorney who may also have law enforcement investigate the incident to determine if there should be a criminal prosecution. 

“In this instance, OSHA and law enforcement investigations may continue on parallel tracks but the criminal prosecution and penalties becomes the main focus of all investigatory efforts,” he said.

Storm Shelter Requirements In Illinois

Clifford Oliver is a recently retired former FEMA senior official and now the principal at Nanticoke Global Strategies. He said, “It is worth noting that all of Illinois is in the highest tornado risk area in the International Code Council’s Standard for the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters that is referenced in the International Building Code (IBC). 

“When located in the highest tornado risk area, the IBC requires storm shelters in 911 call stations, emergency operations centers, fire, rescue, and ambulance stations, police stations, and K-12 school buildings with a capacity of 50 or more occupants. The IBC does not require businesses to provide a safe room for its workers, so it is up to each employer to make a decision,” Oliver observed.

About OSHA Investigations

Process

Legal analyst, commentator and investigations expert Tracy Pearson observed that, “Investigations are initially fact-finding endeavors. OSHA investigators will interview surviving employees, collect evidence from other sources, such as 9-1-1 calls, and try to piece together what happened and when. 

“They will apply those facts to current regulations to make findings. In areas where [there] are gaps in protections for employees, they will collaborate to promulgate new rules. In cases where there are more than three fatalities you will be able to review the incident file on the OSHA website under Catastrophes and Fatalities or Accident Reports, depending on the issue classification,” she said.

Review Of Emergency Action Plan

Oliver said OSHA investigators “will be reviewing the facilities Emergency Action Plan (EAP) that is required under federal regulations. They will be reviewing the written plan itself and reviewing how Amazon executed the plan as each employer is responsible for the safety and health of its workers and for providing a safe and healthful workplace for its workers.”

‘One Area Of Contention’

He noted that, “Employers are required to protect workers from the anticipated hazards associated with the response and recovery operations that workers are likely to conduct. An EAP must address emergencies that the employer may reasonably expect in the workplace.

“One area of contention will be the ‘reasonably expect’ provision and whether Amazon took sufficient action to protect their employees from the threat of tornadoes in the area where the facility is located,” according to Oliver.

Determining The Scope Of The Investigation

Kristen Panella is a workplace safety expert with Summit Safety & Efficiency Solutions, a safety and industrial engineering firm. He noted that OSHA investigators, “are appropriately trained and experienced compliance officers assigned by the area director [who] determines the scope of the fatality/catastrophe investigation.

“OSHA encourages the use of videotaping as a method of documentation and gathering evidence, according to Panella. “Inspections following fatalities or catastrophes typically include videotaping when appropriate. The OSHA inspectors will interview all persons with first-hand knowledge of the incident, including employees, first responders, police officers, medical responders, and management.

“Because cases involving a fatality may result in civil or criminal enforcement actions, the area director is responsible for reviewing all fatality and catastrophe investigation case files to ensure that the case has been properly developed and documented in accordance with the procedures outlined in this instruction,” he said.

Analysis

A Reminder

Michel Anteby is a professor of management and organizations at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. He said that, “… the Amazon warehouse collapse reminds us that most contemporary workplaces are not conducive to fostering a culture of safety. Decades of research on team dynamics highlights that rotating people in and out of teams is often counter-productive in terms of safety outcomes.

One Factor To Consider

“While we don’t know the specifics of Amazon’s staffing policy, we can only imagine that the night shift was probably not the most popular one. Those working that shift maybe stayed on for the extra earnings or because their schedules did not allow them to pick up work during the day. It would therefore not be surprising that people’s tenure on that shift was lower than on others, and that the constant cycling of people in and out might have contributed to the loss of lives,” Anteby commented.

One Possible Outcome

“Like in the 1911 New York City Triangle Factory Fire event, it’s both saddening and humbling to see that it might take a tragedy for better and safer working conditions to be implemented. The Edwardsville Amazon warehouse collapse will go down in history as one of the worst natural disasters to hit the region in decades. But it might also go down in history as the moment new safety standards finally get discussed and enforced,” he concluded.