SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — A panel of House lawmakers reviewed building code protocols and heard testimony from emergency management experts at a warehouse standards hearing on Monday in an effort to improve workplace safety during natural disasters.
The House Labor and Commerce Committee held the hearing in response to the EF-3 tornado that tore the roof from the Edwardsville Amazon fulfillment center last December. The building collapsed, killing six workers inside and seriously injuring another.
Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea) and Rep. Katie Stuart (D-Edwardsville) both represent districts ravaged by the tornado.
“Our obligation as elected officials to look at whether or not there were things that could have been done with regard to the building code, with regard to the safety of workers,” Hoffman said.
“We can’t stop tornadoes,” Stuart said, “but hopefully we can do what we can to stop loss of life and protect people.”
The National Institute of Standards and Technology says more tornado deaths happen indoors than outside, and often that’s because people don’t take the proper precautions.
“Tornadoes cause more fatalities in the US than hurricanes and earthquakes combined, and most tornado fatalities occur inside buildings,” Marc Levitan, research wind engineer at NIST, testified. “Tornado fatalities are a buildings’ problem.”
John Felton, senior vice president at Amazon, said in a December press conference that the warehouse did have a storm shelter. Most of the workers inside the center evacuated there. Felton said the shelter was “mostly undamaged.”
In 2014, Illinois updated its school building code to include a storm shelter for all newly built schools.
Labor experts pointed out even with safer buildings, employees still need to be trained by their employers how to respond to natural disasters while on the clock.
“You can have the safest, best safety chambers in the country,” Tim Drea, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, said. “But if workers don’t know to go there, they won’t do any good.”
Lawmakers also heard from first responders who explained challenges in clear communication during chaotic events. In written testimony, Edwardsville’s fire chief James Whiteford said local emergency crews needed to reach out for resources to rescue trapped workers and 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.”
State legislators have not yet filed legislation in response to the tragedy.
OSHA is currently investigating if Amazon followed workplace safety rules during the tornado. The agency must conclude their investigation by April.