On the afternoon of May 8, Caes Gruesbeck, 20, was trying to clear an obstruction on an overhead package conveyor at an Amazon distribution center in Fort Wayne, Ind. He was en route to the jam in an elevated lift when his head collided with the conveyor and became trapped by the machinery, according to a Sept. 18 safety order. He died of blunt force injuries.
After an 11-week investigation, Indiana safety officials found that Amazon failed to ensure a workplace “free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death” and issued a serious safety citation.
The penalty? A $7,000 fine, the maximum in Indiana.
Amazon, America’s second-largest private employer, is under unprecedented scrutiny for a high rate of injuries at its warehouses as multiple government agencies raise alarms about ergonomic safety. But cases like Gruesbeck’s reveal the limited ability of state and federal safety regulators to effectively levy penalties or enforce safety policies on powerful corporations like Amazon, which made $9.9 billion in profit in the last quarter.
“Seven thousand dollars for the death of a 20-year-old? What’s that going to do to Amazon?” said Stephen Wagner, an Indiana attorney who has advocated for more worker-friendly laws in the state. “There’s no real financial incentive for an employer like Amazon to change their working environment to make it more safe.”
Gruesbeck’s fatal accident happened as safety regulators around the country were ramping up multiple inquiries into Amazon’s safety practices. In 2021, Amazon workers were seriously injured at higher rates than other workers in the same industry, The Washington Post reported, though the company has disputed those figures and said its safety record has since improved.
Since 2022, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has filed at least half a dozen safety violations against Amazon, fining the company more than $270,000 as part of a coordinated response to high rates of ergonomic injuries and risks of musculoskeletal disorders among Amazon employees. The company faces similar allegations in Washington state, where it defended its record this summer in a hearing before state safety officials. The results are pending.
Meanwhile, two investigations are ongoing into Amazon’s in-house medical office, AmCare, and how Amazon documents and reports injuries, one by the attorney general for the Southern District of New York and the other by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has demanded information about the company’s “systematically underreported” injury rates.
But so far, Amazon has faced few consequences as a result of this regulatory activity. If it loses in Washington state, it can appeal, a process that would take years. And the congressional inquiry has so far produced no findings.
Typically, OSHA investigates individual buildings; the agency has said it would take 160 years for it to inspect every workplace in the United States. But coordinated OSHA investigations like the one at Amazon can result in corporate-wide settlements. Recently, the agency reached such a settlement with Dollar Tree and Family Dollar stores over blocked exit routes. The $1.35 million settlement followed a six-year investigation and a total of $15 million in individual fines.
This slow but sweeping approach is aimed at changing the way a company operates, rather than addressing one-off problems at workplaces through OSHA’s limited system of fines.
In 2016, OSHA raised the minimum fines for safety violations, increasing the penalty for repeat violations to $124,709 from $70,000, and the penalty for serious violations to $12,471 from $7,000. But former OSHA chief of staff Debbie Berkowitz said OSHA penalties remain “ridiculously low—even for fatalities where the company violated the law.”
In the 22 states that manage their own health and safety programs, those fines can be even lower. Indiana has some of the most lax protections for workers in the nation, according to former federal workplace safety officials. The state not only caps fines for serious violations at $7,000 but bars families from suing for wrongful death in civil court—even in cases like Gruesbeck’s where state officials said the company should have done more to prevent death.
According to the Indiana safety order, Amazon should have properly trained employees like Gruesbeck, enforced safety rules about driving elevated lifts under low clearance machinery and more clearly demarcated “danger zones.” Amazon is contesting the citation, saying the company moved quickly to fix the safety issues, for example, hanging signs in “low-clearance areas.”
“Our thoughts continue to be with our employee’s family and team at the site,” Amazon spokesperson Maureen Lynch Vogel said in an email. “After the tragedy, we immediately closed the facility, notified Indiana OSHA, and began cooperating with their investigation.” Vogel also said Gruesbeck’s training was up-to-date and that he was wearing the required safety equipment at the time of the accident.
Regarding Amazon’s safety record in Washington, Vogel previously said the allegations “are inaccurate and don’t reflect the reality of safety at Amazon.”
“The truth is that we’re always investing in safety and our efforts are working,” she said at the time.
Vogel also said that “OSHA’s record-keeping citations confirm that there is no systemic underreporting of injuries” at Amazon, and that the company takes “the safety and health of our employees very seriously.”
“The government’s allegations don’t reflect the reality of safety at our site,” she said.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. Interim CEO Patty Stonesifer sits on Amazon’s board.
Gruesbeck graduated from Wayne High School in 2021. He died 10 days short of his 21st birthday, just over a year after his dad, Gary, died from gastric cancer, leaving his mother, Tracey, alone.
She declined to comment for this article while the state processes her workers’ compensation claim. Under Indiana law, she could be entitled to two-thirds of her son’s wages for 10 years, as well as funeral costs, if she can prove she was at least partially dependent on him.
According to Gruesbeck’s obituary, he enjoyed video games, music and hanging out with friends.
Alexis Smiley was a schoolmate of Gruesbeck who also worked at the Amazon warehouse in Fort Wayne. “He was very bright, smart,” she said of Gruesbeck. “He was always trying to help.”
The day of the accident was chaotic and traumatic, she remembered, and left her worried it could happen again. The day after, co-workers released lanterns into the sky in his memory, the local news station reported.
“Those who saw what happened are very shaken,” an Amazon employee who worked at the same fulfillment center as Gruesbeck wrote in a May Facebook post. “My prayers are with the worker’s family and friends who died. Along with those who witnessed it, and those who will be going back to work doing his job.”
Gruesbeck was not the first Amazon employee to die at work in Indiana. In 2017, a 59-year-old man was crushed to death by a forklift at an Amazon warehouse in Plainfield. The Indiana health inspector who investigated the incident initially found that Amazon had committed four serious safety violations and fined the company $7,000 for each—a total of $28,000.
Amazon, which contested the citations at the time, said it has always cooperated with Indiana OSHA.
The family of the man who died declined to be interviewed for this story.
In 2016, Jolda Fischer’s husband, Myron, died while working maintenance at a hotel in Marion, Ind. Workplace safety officials cited the hotel with four safety violations and issued a fine of $2,400. But Jolda was shocked to learn that the law prevented her from filing a lawsuit against her husband’s employer.
“They were the cause of his death, and I couldn’t do anything,” she told The Post. While “money wouldn’t bring him back,” she said a legal settlement would have given her the satisfaction of knowing the hotel had a financial incentive to improve its operations. “That would have made things change.”
Wagner, the Indiana attorney, said civil lawsuits would be a more effective deterrent than OSHA penalties, which are too small to make a real impact on most companies.
“All it takes is one big settlement and that company is doing business in an entirely different way,” he said. “We can’t rely on OSHA to do that.”
While Indiana’s program is independent, federal OSHA has oversight. A 2022 federal OSHA report found that Indiana’s program required “further review” because its average fine for a serious penalty fell more than 25 percent below the national average due to “IOSHA not adopting OSHA’s penalty increase in 2016.”
Indiana OSHA acknowledged the issue in a 2022 letter to federal OSHA, but said raising the penalties would require legislative action. “IOSHA has provided language and information for such; however, IOSHA cannot make the Indiana General Assembly act,” the letter said. The Indiana legislature did raise some workplace safety penalties in 2019, including increasing the fine for repeat or “willful” safety violations resulting in a fatality to $132,598.
Last year, federal OSHA threatened to revoke Arizona’s independent program in part because its penalties failed to match the federal minimum. The matter was dropped after Arizona passed legislation increasing some state penalties.
McFarland, the Indiana OSHA spokesperson, said in an email statement that “federal law does not directly require Indiana OSHA to have the same maximum penalties as Federal OSHA.”
But U.S. Department of Labor spokesperson Victoria Godinez said in an email that state plans are “required to be at least as effective as Federal OSHA.” She added that the agency will “continue to work with Indiana and monitor their progress and will continue to address concerns regarding penalty levels.”
When reached for comment, the Indiana Department of Labor pointed to their press release about their track record: “We see these strides that employers continue to make in improving workplace health and safety on the whole. The Indiana Department of Labor will continue to work with Hoosier companies across the state to drive this trend.”