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Safety mirage at FedEx Ground

Dennis Fritz describes unsafe working conditions at FedEx Ground in Niles, Illinois.

Many thanks to author Malli Nath and the Tempest editors for the article “View from the warehouse floor: Murder, defeat, and other episodes” posted May 11. Like Nath, I too am a package handler at FedEx Ground. I work at the hub in Niles, Illinois, just outside Chicago. Nath’s experience at the company mirrors my own, even down to some of the most specific details. For example, I also have a large number of hearing-impaired coworkers. Most compellingly, the article nails the mindfuck of constantly being urged to work safely, while simultaneously being pushed to work so fast that safety becomes impossible.

The commitment of FedEx Ground to safety is nothing but an exercise in corporate gaslighting. It is a mirage. At FedEx Ground, workers are daily admonished to follow safety rules we know will never be enforced, and are regularly required to sign paperwork acknowledging we have attended safety meetings that never took place. The unstated, unwavering assumption of FedEx Ground is that accidents are always the result of worker carelessness; nothing is ever the fault of the company. Worker carelessness certainly can cause accidents, but it is far from the only way accidents can happen. FedEx Ground routinely pressures employees to work in an unsafe manner for the sake of their true top priority: speed.

The company’s obsession with speed is driven by desire to maximize profitability. The dynamic is best understood in Marxist terms. A Marxist maxim holds that labor produces all wealth. However, in a capitalist economy, owners lay claim to wealth produced by the labor of their employees—everything produced by everyone at the company, collectively, somehow belongs solely to the owners. It is weird, if you think about it, but there it is. Owners simply pay back part of what workers produce in the form of wages. This is how the owners can game the system: hourly wage rates are fixed; however, productivity is not. The faster workers get through their work, the larger the portion of the wealth they produce goes to owners in the form of profits, rather than to workers themselves in the form of wages. This creates an incentive for owners to push workers to work as hard and as fast possible. The need for speed is simply incompatible with safety, which is maximized when workers labor at a steady, sustainable pace.

FedEx Ground trailers. Photo credit: Raymond Clarke via Flickr.

One example of the subordination of safety to speed is the practice called stripping incompatibles or ICs. These are packages too large, too heavy, and too awkwardly shaped to fit through the automated sorter—think truck tires, backyard trampolines, or automotive exhaust pipes. These items are stacked into trailers alongside smaller, lighter packages the automated sorter can handle. Trailers are packed tightly; imagine matchsticks pressed together inside a matchbox.

Anyone who unloads trailers for a living knows the safest procedure is to get a team of at least three people—a scanner and at least two unloaders—to work each trailer. The unloaders start from the top, where the lightest packages are stacked, and work their way to the trailer floor, where the heaviest packages rest. They move from back to front, working their way from the rear of the trailer toward the front area just behind the cab. Steel rollers run along the center line of the trailer floor, on a slight downward slope. Smaller packages are set down on these rollers. As these packages are stacked one behind the other, gravity shifts them towards the person scanning, who tags them and sends them up a conveyor belt to the main sorter. Larger packages or ICs have to be hauled out of the truck manually, often by two people. These are set on a different set of rollers that feed onto the IC conveyor belt. The IC belt delivers these larger packages to the tugger area, where Nath worked. The tuggers then load them onto electric carts and haul them to smaller FedEx Ground vans, which deliver packages to their final destinations. (The tuggers are a tribe apart. At the hub in Niles, tuggers howl at each other across the shop floor. They sound like they were raised by wolves. It is some weird tradition that no one else understands.)

It is an efficient system, at least in theory. The trouble is, there often are not enough workers on a given shift to unload all the waiting trailers simultaneously. Rather than wait until teams can get to the trailers, floor managers pull workers from other areas and have them strip ICs. That is, managers have them climb into the trailers, shift and move packages around, and pull out or “strip” the largest, heaviest ones and hoist them onto the IC belt. This is done to save time. The reasoning is that when a full team finally arrives, nothing will be left in the trailers but smaller packages, which can be tagged and sent up the sorter that much faster.

Stripping ICs is a stupidly dangerous practice. Having someone strip ICs is the equivalent of having them climb into a giant Jenga tower stacked with huge, heavy pieces and expecting them to pull the heaviest pieces out without causing the rest of the tower to collapse around them. Collapses happen—a lot. The first time I got injured at the Niles hub was while stripping ICs. I had reached up to remove a box fan from atop a minifridge I intended to strip out. From where I was standing, I could not see that a rolled-up carpet was stacked directly behind the box fan. When I pulled the fan aside, the carpet flew out like a spear and smacked me right in the forehead. It literally knocked me off my feet. Had I been a less physically robust person (or, per my wife’s theory, were it not for the fact I have such an abnormally thick skull), I might have been seriously hurt. A week later, I was stripping ICs again when a rail filled with heavy steel rods tipped over and crashed onto my foot. (The term “rail” is used at FedEx Ground to refer to any IC that is tall and slender in shape.) All I can say is, kudos to whoever invented steel-toed boots. Most injuries at the Niles hub occur inside trailers and many are suffered while stripping ICs, yet the practice continues because it enhances speed.

The most galling example of FedEx Ground putting speed ahead of safety has been their near-total non-enforcement of mask-wearing throughout the entire COVID-19 pandemic. Make no mistake, signs mandating the wearing of masks are posted throughout the Niles facility. No one is allowed past the security gate without one. Floor managers frequently remind workers to wear masks during our daily pre-shift meetings, and warn us about stiff penalties—up to and including termination—if we do not comply. Yet, on any given day, perhaps one-third of my coworkers bother wearing masks. Of these, maybe half wear them correctly—there are a lot of under-the-nose and under-the-chin mask-wearers at the Niles hub. Despite signs and warnings, workers who will not wear masks are not disciplined in any way. I have worked at the Niles hub for over a year, and I do not know of a single case of a worker being sanctioned for not wearing a mask. This, despite the fact that the hub has experienced repeated outbreaks of COVID-19. I myself fell ill with COVID-19 in May 2020, one month after I started working there. The reason for this lack of enforcement is, once again, the need for speed. Suspending or firing workers who will not comply with mask-wearing requirements pulls them off the shop floor—that slows down processing, and that means less profit. Slowing down is something FedEx Ground management simply will not abide by. Their mantra is speed, speed, and more speed. Forever and ever, amen.

In the wake of the tragic shooting in Indianapolis, news reports revealed that workers trapped inside the hub were unable to communicate with loved ones outside because they were not allowed to bring cell phones into the building. I can confirm that this is true. For all their laxity about enforcement of mask-wearing, FedEx Ground is fanatical about not allowing cell phones inside their facilities. (FedEx Ground employees are also sternly warned against discussing their jobs on social media.) The reason given is “security.” I will tell you what I think is the real reason: they do not want the public to see what is really going on inside. They do not want anyone to see the lack of mask-wearing, the rough handling of packages, the blatant health and safety violations. FedEx Ground does not want their operations filmed for the same reason police officers do not want to be filmed. FedEx Ground, like police, want to control the narrative. They want their version of reality to be the only version anyone has access to—and their version is the mirage.

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Dennis Fritz View All

Dennis Fritz is a full-time package handler for FedEx Ground in Niles, Illinois.