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Amazon opens new fulfillment center in Augusta County

A person drives a machine through a warehouse
Randi B. Hagi
An employee drives a PIT, or powered industrial truck, through aisles at Amazon's new Augusta County warehouse.

The facility has a footprint greater than 15 football fields.

Read the original story on WMRA's website.

Amazon opened a one-million-square-foot warehouse in Fishersville late last month. The new fulfillment center has a footprint greater than 15 football fields.

Augusta County Administrator Tim Fitzgerald spoke at a ribbon-cutting event last week.

"In some ways, it feels like this day's been a long time coming," Fitzgerald said. "It is a testament to making economic development a strategic priority for the county."

In Amazon lingo, this place is referred to as a "traditional, non-sortable" facility, meaning it deals in products a bit bigger and bulkier than what can be easily managed by robotic equipment. The items here are generally 20 to 30 pounds, and consist of a lot of home goods.

Employees work in shifts around the clock, receiving and storing Amazon merchandise.

"The first product we received was a three-pack, eight-pound bag of Epsom salt, and then the first item that we stowed was an air purifier," said Irfaan Hafeez, the facility's general manager. "So, if you think in that range – blenders, chairs, et cetera — we house them here."

On a recent tour, Hafeez walked through the different receiving and processing areas of the warehouse.

"When it's not on a pallet, it's just in a box," Hafeez said. "We actually have our parcel identification device, and what it does is, it's establishing, where did this package, where did this carton come from?"

Here, a conveyor belt fed boxes through bright red and purple scanner lights, and slapped labels on them. Hafeez said it's capable of doing over 2,000 cartons an hour.

Once identified and labeled, the merchandise gets stored until it's ordered by a customer in Virginia or another state nearby. Then, it'll get sent to a sorting center, a delivery station, and finally, to your doorstep.

A person wearing a high-visibility vest points to a machine in a warehouse. Their vest says "Irfaan"
Randi B. Hagi
Irfaan Hafeez points towards a parcel identification machine.

Hafeez emphasized many safety features and protocols of the facility — such as a railing separating a walkway from equipment parking.

"As you can see all around us, really, safety innovation," Hafeez said. "If something were to happen, this can sustain. It will bend, it won't break."

Worker safety — or lack thereof — in Amazon warehouses has caught the attention of Congress and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the past few years. Internal records obtained by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting showed that the company's serious injury rate from 2016 - 2019 was nearly double the industry average.

Their reporting includes data from four warehouses in Virginia — in Sterling, Clear Brook, Petersburg and Chester. Those facilities reported between six and 14.5 serious injuries per 100 workers per year. During that time, the industry average was around just four.

Since then, OSHA has received four complaints about safety at Amazon's Virginia facilities. One of them resulted in a $5,000 fine for violating the law which requires employers to quickly report "any work-related incident resulting in … the loss of an eye."

In April, the Strategic Organizing Center, a labor union coalition, issued a report analyzing OSHA data from 2022. The center found the company's serious injury rate for that year to be 6.6 per 100 workers — still twice the rate of non-Amazon warehouses, which had dropped to 3.2.

A large, blue and gray building. The amazon logo is above the door
Randi B. Hagi
Amazon's new facility in Augusta County has a footprint greater than 15 football fields.

CNBC has reported that Amazon took issue with the term "serious injury rate," saying it was being used to include minor injuries such as a strain. The article noted, however, that in 2021, Amazon set a goal to cut its warehouse injury rate in half by 2025.

At the grand opening, Dean Fullerton, vice president of global engineering and security services, noted that while worker safety is not under his purview, "I've been in this industry for a long time … and I would say Amazon — if you were to go inside one of these buildings — is one of the safest places to work in, and there's a lot of priority and capital spent on making sure it is safe."

"That's not to say we don't have a lot to do and a lot that we can improve on. We're not perfect. We have a long ways to go. But there are a lot of initiatives that we have around safety," Fullerton said.

Hafeez, along with other company leaders, touted the benefits of working at Amazon: "A starting average wage of over $16, comprehensive benefits packages, a supportive work environment, includes health, vision, dental from day one, a 401k with 50 percent match, a generous paid leave, and free mental health resources."

Holly Sullivan, vice president of global economic development, explained that all hourly, full-time workers are eligible for education benefits after 90 days of employment. They're partnering with James Madison University and Blue Ridge Community College to provide some of those opportunities.

The fulfillment center currently employs around 200 people, and Hafeez plans to hire another 300 to reach full staffing levels.