Structural Issues Outlined in Warehouse Report

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 20, 2022


According to a report by engineer Dan Bruno, “significant structural issues” may have contributed to last year’s Amazon warehouse collapse in Edwardsville, Illinois.

Bruno created the report for a regional search and rescue group investigating the incident.

What Happened

Around 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 10, a tornado rated EF-3 tore through a 1.1-million-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center, causing the structure’s concrete walls to topple and the roof to collapse. During the storm, wind speeds were reported as being as high as 150 miles per hour.

Six people were killed in the collapse and another employee experienced serious injuries.

During rescue efforts, emergency responders described various challenges faced during the chaotic event. In a written testimony, Edwardsville’s Fire Chief James Whiteford reported that local emergency crews needed to reach out for resources to rescue trapped workers and had asked for more money for disaster training.

“[Emergency services] need built-in redundancy in order to ensure response capabilities are there when they are needed,” Whiteford wrote. “Whether it is from the next tornado, earthquake, ice storm or terrorist attack, adequate funding is essential to ensure this capability.”

As a result of the fatalities and injury, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has launched an investigation into the workplace safety rules at Amazon and if the company had any proper emergency actions plans. However, the OSHA investigation will not be examining the structure’s construction or whether it met buildings, or if those codes should be reevaluated.

This investigation was expected to conclude by April.

Since the incident, Amazon has already received a wrongful-death lawsuit, alleging that the company “knew or should have known that this location would not protect them.”

To that point, Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea)—who co-represents the district that was most affected by the tornado—was also quoted in saying, “It would seem to me there should have been more safe zones for the workers that were actually safe zones.”

An Amazon spokeswoman reports that the warehouse was built to code and has welcomed reviews of their safety standards. In a press release issued by Senior Vice President at Amazon John Felton later that month, he reported that the facility did have a storm shelter and that most of the workers inside had been evacuated there. Felton added that the shelter was “mostly undamaged.”

Report Findings

Released by Jack Casciato, an attorney with Chicago-based Clifford Law Offices representing the family of Amazon worker Austin McEwen, Bruno indicated that after inspecting the aftermath of the tornado damage at the Amazon facility, it was evident that several structural columns didn’t appear to have been anchored to the ground correctly.

The report was released during an online press conference through a public records request by Bruno’s search and rescue group, the St. Louis Regional Urban Area Security Initiative Strike Team 3.

“I had found what I believed to be one or more significant structural issues with the Amazon building that may have contributed to the failure of the structure,” Bruno said in the report.

This observation was made due to the lack of welds or bolted connections at the base of the columns. However, Bruno did note that there appeared to be caulk around the base of the floor line. Despite these issues, he added that his findings were “advisory only” and said that an additional analysis would be required by professionals.

In response to the premature findings, the city of Edwardsville said that it was too early to make any determinations about the structural safety of the building. Currently, Amazon and the property owner, San Diego-based Realty Income Corp., are still working to complete a “forensic investigation.”

“At this time, the Occupational Safety and Health Organization is performing the investigation on the building, and no determination as to its structural integrity has been communicated to the city,” Edwardsville officials said in a statement.

Bruno’s findings have also been shared with OSHA, the chief of the Edwardsville Fire Department and with West County EMS Chief Jeff Sadtler.

In further research, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch found that Amazon leases the warehouse that collapsed. The facility was originally developed in 2018 by Creve Coeur-based TriStar Properties and built by Contegra Construction Co. of Edwardsville using a tilt-up construction method.

In July 2020, the warehouse was expanded to 1.1 million square feet and later that year, the ownership was transferred to Realty Income Corp.

When asked about the facility, Contegra reported that it was not aware of any code violations and that the structure had been inspected in 2018.

“We are heartbroken by the devastation of the tornado to our community and those who lost their lives or property, and we believe the allegations in this lawsuit against Contegra are without merit,” the company said in a statement on Tuesday. “Contegra will vigorously defend our company’s work and our reputation.”

According to Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel, the warehouse was built in compliance with all applicable building codes and passed city inspections in 2020.

Setting Statewide Standards

In February, it was reported that Illinois state lawmakers were considering statewide standards for warehouse construction.

In a statement, Governor J.B. Pritzker was quoted on the topic, saying, “The question is, with all the warehouses that are being built or have been built, should we be setting a state standard for that? That’s something that no doubt will be explored during this session of the General Assembly.

“We should be looking at whether we should be creating statewide standards. We don’t have that now. They’re really done on a county by county or municipality basis.”

In a meeting on Feb. 14, a panel of House lawmakers met to review building code protocols and hear testimony from emergency management experts at a warehouse standard hearing.

The meeting was called to improve workplace safety during natural disasters. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology more tornado deaths happen indoors and attributes this to improper precautions, such as storm shelters or evacuation plans.

In 2014, the state updated its school building code to include a storm shelter for all newly built schools. Despite this standard not yet being applied to other facilities, the state has been reported to adopt the ICC 500, which applies to the design, construction, installation and inspections of both residential and community storm shelters.

Regardless, labor experts say that even with safer building codes and practices in place, there is still a need for proper training and how people should act in the event of a natural disaster. Jim Bell, Director of Operations with the National Storm Shelter Association, adds that another problem with requiring safe rooms or proper protocol is the lack of enforcement for these safety regulations.

While state legislators have yet to file legislation in response to the tragedy, the Illinois House Labor and Commerce Committee is calling for stricter enforcement by inspectors and building owners alike when maintaining tornado shelters.

Tornado Safety and Research

Around the same time as the tornado took place in Edwardsville, Illinois, the American Society of Civil Engineers announced the release of its newly updated ASCE/SEI 7-22 with the goal of better protecting infrastructure from tornado damage.

According to ASCE, the Minimum Design Loads and Associated Criteria for Buildings and Other Structures standard is the Society’s most widely used professional standard and a critical tool in a civil engineer’s commitment to protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public.

Reported to be the first of its kind in the world, the new ASCE standard offers guidance to protect buildings from tornadoes ranking from 0 to 2 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, which translates to winds ranging from 40 mph at the bottom of EF0 to 157 mph at the top of EF2.

Research posted by U.S. Tornadoes suggests that approximately 80% of tornadoes in the nation rate between EF0 to EF1 strength, while the tornado that struck Kentucky was reported to rank anywhere between an EF3 and an EF5.

In superseding the ASCE/SEI 7-16 standard, the new edition also provides up-to-date and coordinated loading provisions for general structural design for all hazards including dead, live, soil, flood, tsunami, snow, rain, atmospheric ice, seismic, wind and fire, as well as how to evaluate load combinations.

The new provisions, the Society reports, are not meant for residential construction, but rather for critical infrastructure such as hospitals and fire stations. In gathering data to provide the update, the committee reportedly drew on new models for more accurate snow load and developed a new multipoint seismic spectrum for certain soft-soil sites.

Due to the infancy of the research, storms ranked EF3 or higher were not included in the newly published guidelines. However, once more research is complete, Don Scott, the chair of the ASCE-7 Wind Load subcommittee, told reporters that more severe storms could be accounted for.

   

Tagged categories: Building codes; Disasters; Fatalities; Good Technical Practice; Government; Hazards; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Inspection; NA; North America; OSHA; Safety

Join the Conversation:

Sign in to our community to add your comments.