Amazon.com Inc. is backing off plans to ban cell phones in warehouses, allowing employees to keep their devices with them at work.
The reversal follows the emergence of a more contagious strain of COVID-19 and after six workers died at a facility struck by a tornado last week, which reinforced a desire among warehouse employees to have access to real-time information in emergencies.
Some Amazon warehouse workers received messages from the e-commerce giant Friday that mobile phones would be allowed “until further notice,” which a spokeswoman for the company confirmed Saturday.
For years, Amazon prohibited employees from having their phones on warehouse floors and required them to leave them in their vehicles or in lockers near break rooms. The rule was temporarily relaxed during the pandemic, and Amazon announced earlier this year it would resume in January.
The deadly collapse of the Edwardsville, Illinois, warehouse near St. Louis amplified concerns among its blue-collar workforce about the return of the phone ban in work areas. Much of the warehouse was reduced to rubble when a string of tornadoes ripped through six states, leaving a trail of destruction that stretched more than 200 miles.
Amazon workers said they want access to information such as updates on potentially deadly weather events through their smartphones -- without interference from Amazon. The phones can also help them communicate with emergency responders or loved ones if they are trapped, they said.
Amazon said it’s examining the collapse and looking for ways to improve safety procedures for workers.
Employers can prevent workers from having their phones while working. They can pose a safety risk, especially in industrial operations, if workers are distracted. And some businesses think smartphones with cameras can compromise sensitive technology and information. But many workers in the digital age see their smartphones as a lifeline, especially in sudden emergencies.
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