Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union officials and employees at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer allege workers were kept at their stations after smoke clouded several floors of the warehouse during an incident Saturday afternoon.
According to RWDSU, a malfunctioning compressor at the warehouse sprayed “excessive amounts” of what the group now alleges was vaporized oil into air vents, quickly spreading the smoke from the third floor to other levels of the Bessemer warehouse.
Workers on the third floor were told to go on Voluntary Time Off, which is unpaid, and evacuate the facility, while other workers on other floors “were neither notified of this, nor told to stop working and the substance spread through the air vents.” the union said.
By approximately 4:30 PM, according to the union, smoke was visible to workers on the first floor, with no facility alarms or notifications to workers sent by superiors.
“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,” said Isaiah Thomas, a ship dock worker at the Bessemer facility in a statement Saturday. “Everyone was very confused, and the lack of information made us feel very unsafe, 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.”
Workers remaining inside the facility began leaving the facility at approximately 5:45 PM, according to the union, with the daily shift change occurring between 5:30 PM and 7:00 PM. Overnight-shift workers began arriving at the facility and were verbally told to re-enter the facility to start their shifts, with cloudiness still visible in the interior of the building, according to the RWDSU.
“Amazon knowingly kept workers at their stations for hours during the incident, failed to properly evacuate the facility, and told workers to go back to work before any clarity on the safety of the vapor in the air was known.” said Stuart Appelbaum, President of the RWDSU, in a statement made Saturday. “It is unconscionable that Amazon would keep workers at their stations when there is a known health and safety issue. Workers’ lives should never be put in jeopardy for profits, something Amazon has an inexcusable history of doing.”
According to a statement first reported by Al.com, Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said Appelbaum’s claims are false, stating that Amazon evacuated the facility and called the fire department.
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration has been notified by Amazon workers of the incident Saturday, the RWDSU said, and the union is “awaiting further investigation into the matter.”
In the lead-up to the second union election, The RWDSU filed several new unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging continued interference with the unionization efforts and surveillance for certain pro-union employees –, including Isaiah Thomas.
In the recent unfair labor practice charge filed by the RWDSU, the group alleges Thomas was surveilled by Amazon management for asking questions during a captive audience meeting and discussing the union with co-workers during break-time.
Ballot counting for the second union election at the Bessemer facility begins today.