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Amazon's Portland Facility Turns Down Safety Sirens After Worker Concerns

Dozens of people rallied Wednesday outside an Amazon facility in Northwest Portland where some employees have raised concerns about working conditions.

Organizer Jamie Partridge, a longtime labor activist, said the rally was a show of solidarity with warehouse employees. He described Amazon’s Prime Week as a difficult time for workers, “when the volumes are way sky high and the working conditions are brutal.”

Partridge pointed, in general, to the speed and intensity required to get customers their packages in the blink of an eye.

One warehouse worker who wandered over seemed less outraged. Instead, she asked about the vegetarian options at the community barbecue unfolding there among the fumes and horns of Highway 30.

But inside the warehouse, other employees have been actively raising concerns about working conditions – primarily noise and heat.

The delivery station on NW St. Helens Road is the last stop for packages before workers load them onto vans or cars for delivery. In the mornings, successive waves of vans drive into the warehouse itself, traveling down two long driving lanes where workers load them with packages.

Vans + people = a potential safety risk. So the facility had a system to alert workers and keep them safe. It relied on megaphones.

According to current and former workers, the vans’ arrival would be announced with blaring alarms from hand-held, powered megaphones. Not a speaker system that could evenly distribute sound – but bullhorns. On one side of the building: a high-pitched chirping sound. On the other: a siren.

“If you’re in the wrong spot, if you’re right nearby where the sound is coming from, it’s like a police car or an ambulance,” one current employee told OPB on the condition they not be named.

After OPB reported on employee concerns about the alarms’ volume, the megaphones went silent. By the next day, management had apparently shelved them. Workers heard the site could move to a lighting system to warn of approaching vans – perhaps a red light/green light structure.

An Amazon spokesperson did not confirm the use of megaphones or comment on what shape a future warning system might take. But standing by the Wednesday rally, Amanda Ip said, “Just to be very clear. The alert system was well within OSHA standards. But we take feedback from our employees and have made adjustments to make sure they feel comfortable in their work environment.”

Not all warehouse workers were advocating for change or are happy with the results. The alarms served a vital safety function, protecting workers from moving vehicles. Some employees are said to be frustrated the old system was removed without a comprehensive new one in place.

As for summer heat, that appears less likely to change. The facility has no air conditioning on the main warehouse floor, though it does have industrial fans. Amazon said that’s typical in the logistics industry for buildings where dock doors are often open.

One former worker sees things differently.

At the rally, Carsen Harrison-Bower stood behind the warehouse where she said she worked for 8 months. And she thought about the ultra-rich founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos – the man who tops the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

“An air conditioner isn’t a lot to ask from the richest man in the world,” she said.