2020 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Medium Newsroom finalist

Amazon: Behind the Smiles

About the Project

This investigation exposed for the first time the true toll of Amazon’s relentless drive for speed, using never-before-public injury records from the company’s warehouses and deep sourcing from current and former Amazon workers.

With the company claiming safety is its top priority, reporters knew they needed data and official records to document the warehouse problem and its scope conclusively. But Amazon wouldn’t disclose any injury numbers. Neither would the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which collects the records.

Reveal responded to the stonewalling by launching a massive, resource-intensive effort to collect injury records from current and former Amazon employees. This involved reaching out to hundreds of workers around the country to see if they would request injury records from their worksites and share them with Reveal.

The ambitious project ultimately yielded the most comprehensive data available on Amazon worker injuries, with records for 23 of the company’s 110 fulfillment centers, spread over 14 states. Our analysis found that the rate of serious injuries at those warehouses in 2018 was more than double the warehousing industry average. Some locations had rates of four to six times the industry average.

Meanwhile, warehouse workers and former safety managers described a frantic, quota-obsessed workplace that quickly broke down the human body. Reveal unearthed 911 tapes indicating that Amazon managers had made workers work through a gas leak, even as some vomited into trash bins at their stations.

Reveal’s reporters poured through OSHA files on the death of an Amazon warehouse worker in Indiana, then tracked down the former inspector who investigated that death. They rushed to Alaska to meet the inspector in person, and got his secret recordings of state officials discussing the case. In the end, the investigation showed that Amazon avoided accountability for the worker’s death after state officials deleted safety citations just as the state was jockeying for Amazon’s second headquarters.

The findings implicate every Amazon customer, including more than 100 million Amazon Prime members. We created an interactive map where consumers can find injury rates for the warehouses that handled their packages. To be as transparent as possible, we made the records showing those numbers available to the public by posting them online.

The investigation resulted in a beautifully told story on the Reveal radio show and podcast, as well as video segments on PBS NewsHour and online text pieces with The Atlantic and the Indianapolis Star. Through a multi-platform approach, we were able to pierce through government and corporate secrecy and go deep inside the nation’s second-largest private employer, run by the richest person in the world.