On the afternoon of June 2, Amazon worker Roger A. Kieca died after suffering a medical emergency while working at the company’s cross-dock facility in Joliet, Illinois. The temperature in Joliet that afternoon was 90 degrees.
Amazon has repeatedly denied that workplace conditions had anything to do with the death of the 59-year-old, and stated that the tragedy was “due to a non-work related medical incident.”
“There is no evidence that this unfortunate incident was related to tasks the employee was performing as part of his standard work in our climate-controlled facility that did not exceed 77 degrees,” Maureen Lynch Vogel, an Amazon spokesperson, wrote in an email on June 4, two days after Kieca’s death.
But the death at the facility, which is known as MDW2, has raised the concerns of at least one city official. “I find it incredibly hard to believe that the circumstances of [Kieca’s] work had nothing to do with the circumstances of his death,” Joliet City Council member Cesar Guerrero tells In These Times and Workday Magazine. “I didn’t know Roger or the conditions under which he worked specifically, but I have known plenty of people who have worked at Amazon — friends, family members — and every single one of them has had some horror story or another.”
Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ), a workers’ rights nonprofit that is affiliated with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, is also asking questions about Kieca’s death and has tried to raise the alarm about Amazon’s history of worker safety issues. In a statement, the organization wrote, “We are asking the relevant authorities to seek greater oversight of industry practices with regard to emergency medical services to ensure that all warehouse workers across Will County are kept safe.”
New information collected by In These Times and Workday Magazine also raises questions about the circumstances surrounding Kieca’s death. An audio recording of a 911 call placed by another Amazon employee, which was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, shows that the individual making the call believed the cause of Kieca’s medical distress was possibly “dehydration” — the only potential cause cited by the caller. This recording appears to contradict Amazon’s narrative that the cause of death was not related to conditions in and around the warehouse, and raises questions about whether his death could have been prevented.
Kieca was an Air Force veteran nicknamed “Santa” by coworkers because of his white beard and jolly demeanor. He worked as an electric pallet jack operator at Amazon’s MDW2 cross-dock warehouse that allows the company to ship in bulk and is known for the rapid movement of goods.
Amazon told In These Times and Workday Magazine that, after Kieca suffered a medical incident, he was first brought to AmCare, Amazon’s in-house first-aid clinic. After his symptoms changed, Amazon says it called 911 (when asked, the company would not reveal what his initial symptoms were or how they changed, citing unspecified privacy issues). The company did not specify who at Amazon made the call, but said the call came from someone with the company.
In the audio recording of the call, which was made at 1:19 p.m. on June 2, a woman can be heard requesting an ambulance. She explained that Kieca was within the “medical facility,” where he was unconscious but breathing, and had medical staff with him.
The dispatcher asked, “Do you know what caused this?” After getting no response, he repeated, “Ma’am, do you know what caused this?”
She replied: “Not sure. Dehydration.” Less than two minutes later in the recording, emergency responders can be heard saying that Kieca had gone into cardiac arrest.
The Joliet Fire Department confirmed that it responded to a male in cardiac arrest at the MDW2 facility, but offered little information.
“The employees of the warehouse had used an AED [automated external defibrillator] on the patient and the patient had temporarily regained a pulse. The patient did not sustain the pulse while being transported to the hospital,” says Joliet fire chief Jeffery Carey.
Kieca died on the way to the hospital.
Tommy Carden is an organizer with WWJ. He says, “From day one, Amazon has tried to make it seem like it wasn’t their fault, it’s all preexisting conditions, it’s all non-work related. And now we’re learning someone thought it was … dehydration.”
If dehydration put stress on Kieca’s system and contributed to the heart attack, Carden says, this raises questions about the safety of Amazon workers, especially as temperatures rise during the summer months. (Severe dehydration can be a contributing factor to cardiac arrest.)
“If AmCare misinterpreted a heart attack and thought it was dehydration,” he adds, “that’s also really problematic, because it means they could have wasted precious time that was needed to get Roger the true medical care that was needed.”
According to the Cleveland Clinic, “Time is critical in treating a heart attack, and a delay of even a few minutes can result in permanent heart damage or death.”
Either way, Carden says, the 911 call raises questions about why Amazon is so confident Kieca’s death had nothing to do with his workplace environment.
Asked to comment on the 911 call and WWJ’s reaction, Amazon would only say that the company had already provided information on “this non-work-related incident.”
Not work related?
Amazon’s Vogel repeatedly said Kieca’s death was not work related, and that the company has made counseling services available to the warehouse employees.
But, Carden says, “We’ve heard from many workers at MDW2 about temperature issues not just this week, but for years, especially at the docks. Based on what we’ve heard from workers, we simply don’t believe it’s true that the temperature does not rise above 77 degrees.”
Three workers at the MDW2 facility, speaking on condition of anonymity due to concerns about retaliation, said the area near the docks, where Kieca normally worked, is exposed to outdoor temperatures and can get extremely hot in the summer, especially the trailers outside.
“Those trailers are sitting outside in the sun, there’s nothing covering them, those trailers are not air conditioned,” one of the workers said. “That’s like an Easy-Bake Oven.”
“In all honesty, that warehouse during the summer is hotter than it is outside,” another worker said. “That man [Kieca] worked in the trailer. We are also in the trailers stacking. The fans they give us don’t reach all the way inside either.”
Amazon said Kieca was not in the trailers at the time of the incident, but was working as a trainer in a climate-controlled outbound buffer near the dock.
The company also said that employees at the facility have access to 60 water coolers and are encouraged to take water breaks, but WWJ representative Andrew Herrera says workers regularly report facing demerits or being let go because of strict quotas that mean they don’t always have time to take water breaks.
Asked to respond, Amazon’s Vogel wrote: “Employees are allowed and encouraged to take short breaks whenever they need to for water, to use the restroom, or to speak with a manager or HR.”
Herrera says, “All official policies, availability of water stations, or other supposed accommodations are meaningless window dressing if workers do not believe that they can use those resources without reprimand.”
Carey, the fire chief, said there is nothing in the emergency medical service (EMS) report to confirm that Kieca’s incident was caused by excessive heat or the work he was doing. “We do not determine cause of death. That information is determined by the coroner,” he said.
Reached by phone, the Will County Coroner’s Office declined to comment.
A spokesperson for State Rep. Lawrence Walsh, Jr. (D-Joliet) said the lawmaker’s office was told that when Kieca’s body arrived at the hospital, a doctor determined the death to be by natural causes, so his remains were never under the coroner’s jurisdiction.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has already closed its investigation into Kieca’s death. An OSHA spokesperson said the death was determined to be by natural causes and not heat-related.
But, according to Carden, the 911 call raises new questions. “This revelation,” he says, “warrants a re-opening of the inspection into Roger’s death, with consideration of employee hydration and water breaks at MDW2 and the role that AmCare plays in delaying and preventing appropriate medical treatment for workers.”
A recording of another 911 call from the neighboring MDW4 Amazon fulfillment center, obtained through a FOIA request, shows that Kieca was not the only Amazon worker in Joliet reportedly suffering from dehydration that day. Around seven hours later, a woman who appears to be from AmCare called 911 to seek help for a 29-year-old man.
“I have an associate that is here at Amazon. He came in feeling severely dehydrated, dizzy, and just kind of, like, out of it. We’ve been giving him water, ice packs,” states the woman in the call, made at 8:24 p.m. on June 2.
When asked if there is a “certain door” the ambulance should go to, the caller from Amazon states, “It would be the main entrance door. They are very familiar with the entrance. They come here quite often, sadly to say.”
Asked to comment on this other June 2 incident and the 911 caller’s statement that ambulances are often called to the warehouse, Amazon would only say that the company had already provided information on “this non-work-related incident,” presumably referring to Kieca’s death.
It remains unclear how much time passed between Kieca’s initial medical incident, when he was sent to AmCare, and when Amazon called the ambulance. This lack of information is frustrating for one of Kieca’s former coworkers, who requested anonymity over concerns about retaliation. “I want to know what happened during those valuable minutes between when they found him and when they called 911,” said the individual.
The company claims that Kieca did not want outside medical treatment, but In These Times and Workday Magazine were unable to confirm this assertion about his preferences. Amazon declined repeated requests for information about critical details, including the precise timeline of the incident, the symptoms Kieca displayed and how they changed, and how long he was in AmCare before the 911 call.
The company cited privacy issues, but did not respond to a request to outline its specific privacy concerns, which is confusing given that it voluntarily shared other personal medical details about Kieca, including: that he allegedly did not want outside treatment, that he allegedly was not in a collapsed state when he was found, and that his death allegedly did not relate to his workplace.
Warehouse Workers for Justice is “calling on Amazon to share greater details around how it plans to minimize response time for medical emergencies,” the organization said in a statement.
AmCare, which is staffed by emergency medical technicians and athletic trainers, has been criticized by OSHA for allegedly failing to refer workers to doctors or hospitals when needed. A 2019 investigation by The Intercept and Type Investigations found that “AmCare employees nationwide were pressured to sweep injuries and medical issues under the rug at the expense of employee health.”
“In various instances,” the report states, “OSHA investigators found that Amcare medical staff decided to treat the employees in-house, rather than referring them to doctors or hospitals.”
OSHA’s past criticisms of AmCare were unrelated to the agency’s investigation into Kieca’s death.
One worker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, expressed concern that AmCare at the Joliet warehouse complex does not provide care that proactively protects worker health. The Amazon employee, who once suffered a broken foot at the MDW2 facility, told In These Times and Workday Magazine that AmCare staff did not diagnose the injury or recommend an X-ray, but only told the worker to elevate the foot and put ice on it.
“When something happens to you, they’re not going to offer any type of suggestions,” the worker says of AmCare. “You have to be your own doctor.”
Amazon did not respond directly to the worker’s claim, but said that employees can seek outside medical treatment if they want to, and workers who need care beyond first aid are encouraged to seek it offsite.
“We take the safety and well-being of our employees extremely seriously. Claims that we intentionally or systemically delay care to keep injured employees on the job are wrong,” said Vogel.
In 2017, another Amazon employee in Joliet died of a heart attack while on the job. The 57-year-old worked at the MDW4 fulfillment center, next door to the MDW2 facility. His widow later filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Amazon alleging the company needlessly delayed emergency care, but last year, a judge granted summary judgment in favor of the company.
Last July, a 42-year-old Amazon warehouse worker also died of a heart attack at the company’s EWR9 fulfillment center in Carteret, New Jersey during the Prime Day sales rush. Workers alleged sweltering conditions inside the warehouse at the time, but an OSHA investigation determined the cause to be “myocardial fibrosis unrelated to work.” Amazon upgraded the facility’s air conditioning system soon after the incident.
Another employee at a New Jersey Amazon warehouse died last summer after suffering an accident on the job. Those and other deaths prompted the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York to launch an ongoing federal investigation into workplace safety at Amazon facilities nationwide.
The Department of Justice’s civil division is also probing whether the company tried to fraudulently hide the true number of workplace injuries. Last December, OSHA hit Amazon with 14 citations for failing to properly record injuries and illnesses.
The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), chaired by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), is now also launching an investigation into health and safety conditions at Amazon warehouses. “The company’s quest for profits at all costs has led to unsafe physical environments, intense pressure to work at unsustainable rates, and inadequate medical attention for tens of thousands of Amazon workers every year,” Sanders wrote in a June 20 letter to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy.
A recent report by the union-supported Strategic Organizing Center found that while Amazon employed 36% of all U.S. warehouse workers in 2022, the company was responsible for 53% of all serious injuries in the industry. Meanwhile, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health placed Amazon on its 2023 “Dirty Dozen” list of unsafe employers.
So far this year, OSHA has cited Amazon four times for safety violations at seven different facilities across the country (three of the citations targeted more than one facility). OSHA investigators say the company has exposed warehouse workers to a high risk of low back injuries and other musculoskeletal disorders by demanding they work at a rapid pace.
“We take the safety and health of our employees very seriously, and we don’t believe the government’s allegations reflect the reality of safety at our sites,” Vogel said on behalf of Amazon. “We’ve cooperated with the government through its investigation and have demonstrated how we work to mitigate risks and keep our people safe, and our publicly available data show we reduced injury rates in the U.S. 23% between 2019 and 2022. We also know there will always be more to do, and we’ll continue working to get better every day.”
Kieca’s death is not the first time concerns have been raised about conditions at Amazon’s Joliet warehouses. Partnering with WWJ, workers at the MDW2 facility staged two brief walkouts last October and November calling for stronger health and safety policies, in addition to pay raises.
“A significant portion of our population in Joliet work in warehouses, even besides Amazon,” said Cesar Escutia, a Joliet township trustee and former MDW2 worker who helped lead last year’s walkouts. “Amazon is a huge company. I feel like they could be the forerunners to really reinvent workplace safety when it comes to warehouses. They have every resource at their disposal to set the standards for working conditions so that people can do these jobs with dignity and go home safely. And they simply aren’t doing that.”
At the 11:15 a.m. lunch break on June 9, around 20 workers and organizers gathered outside the Joliet Amazon warehouse complex to commemorate Kieca. A speaker played gospel and R&B music, as workers signed a large poster, affixed to a chain link fence topped with barbed wire, memorializing their coworker. The crowd, confined to a small patch of grass by Amazon managers, released red and white balloons under a blazing sun to declarations of, “Long live Roger!”
“We are here to remember a life that was taken away suddenly,” said Maria Alfaro, organizing director for WWJ.
“While Amazon has said he died of natural causes,” she added, speaking through a microphone, to the crowd that had formed a semi-circle facing her, “we would like to know what happened to him.”
This article is a joint publication of In These Times and Workday Magazine, a non-profit newsroom devoted to holding the powerful accountable through the perspective of workers.
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Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.
Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.