By Clare Morganelli, Natural Resources Defense Council
My grandfather was a U.S. Postal Service (USPS) mail carrier for over two decades. “Tony the Mailman,” as he was affectionately known along his route, delivered mail on foot throughout neighborhoods in Queens, New York all year long and in all kinds of weather. But this was in the 1970s and 1980s. Since 1986, continued fossil fuel emissions have driven up average temperatures across the United States by about 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit, and increased the intensity and frequency of heat waves. As reported by The Center for Public Integrity, workplace heat safety standards just haven’t kept pace.
Heat can cause and contribute to a number of dangerous health consequences, and those working outdoors or in poorly-ventilated or uncooled indoor environments face increased risk. Dehydration, heat cramps, vomiting, and loss of consciousness are common symptoms of heat exposure, as well as the exacerbation of existing health conditions like asthma or heart disease. Jim Klenk, a United Parcel Service (UPS) driver in New Jersey, was hospitalized in 2016 because heat-related illness caused his kidneys to fail. In July 2018, a 63-year-old USPS worker in Woodland Hills, California was found dead in her vehicle, on a day that reached 115 degrees Fahrenheit. At least five other mail carriers have died from heat-related complications since 2012, with dozens more facing hospitalization each year.
The proliferation of online shopping was a turning point for the postal and shipping industry. Since 2011, the UPS vehicle fleet has increased almost 24 percent, with gross revenue rising almost 40 percent. Still, many of those iconic brown UPS trucks lack air conditioning, and internal temperatures can soar above 100 degrees in the summer. USPS trucks aren’t much better: a 2017 evaluation of postal delivery vehicles showed that about 70 percent do not have air conditioning. Earlier this month, news broke that a postal worker in Arizona was able to fully cook a steak on the dashboard of a mail delivery truck. Expecting people to work in these dangerous conditions is an unacceptable business practice.
While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has often cited and issued fines to USPS and UPS for unsafe working conditions, the lack of a national heat standard makes it difficult for the agency to enforce stricter worker protections. But Congress can take action to improve this situation: Representative Judy Chu introduced the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act earlier this year, which calls for paid rest breaks, access to water, and limitations to amount of time spent working in extreme temperatures. This bill would cover the Postal Service, better protecting its nearly 500,000 employees from heat-related health problems.
Some postal workers fear retaliation for taking much-needed breaks or calling out sick when experiencing the effects of heat-related illness. Stocking trucks with frozen water bottles, electrolyte-heavy sports drinks, and pickles can help ward off dehydration and other symptoms, but delivery employees often continue working while feeling ill to avoid negative consequences like reprimanding or dismissal. The Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act also includes protections for workplace whistleblowers, giving employees piece of mind and additional security when reporting unsafe working conditions.
Heat is the deadliest form of extreme weather in the United States, and a national heat safety standard is years past due. As temperatures continue to rise due to climate change, employers must be required to prioritize the health of their workforces and protect employees from the debilitating impacts of extreme heat. Until then, lives are on the line.