Heat heightens risks to delivery workers

By Ariel Wittenberg | 08/25/2022 01:11 PM EDT

A UPS driver keeps a towel on his head while driving along Broadway in New York City during warm weather on July 6, 2012.

A UPS driver keeps a towel on his head while driving along Broadway in New York City during warm weather on July 6, 2012. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Most days in the summer, Fernando Castillo feels like he’s roasting. The brown aluminum truck he drives delivering packages in Brooklyn, N.Y., for UPS doesn’t have air conditioning, and routinely feels at least 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the air outside.

During a heat wave in July, Castillo got so dizzy driving that he had to pull over and seek shelter in a veterinary clinic. Once settled in the cool vinyl seats of the clinic’s waiting room, surrounded by cats and dogs waiting for appointments, Castillo passed out. A secretary had to revive him.

“I’m always worried the heat will kill me,” he said. “I go home every day and thank God that I haven’t met that fate yet.”

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Castillo isn’t alone. As climate change turbo-drives temperatures, many of America’s delivery workers are falling gravely ill from the heat due to a lack of air conditioning in their vehicles.

An E&E News analysis of data kept by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that between 2015 and 2021, parcel delivery and mail services had the second-highest rates of workers falling ill due to heat illness. Only the construction industry had more incidents reported to the federal agency.

As heat waves overtook the nation this July, headlines rolled in about drivers of un-air-conditioned delivery vehicles working in sweltering temperatures falling gravely ill or even dying on their routes.

Take the case of a UPS driver in Scottsdale, Ariz., who was seen on a doorbell camera collapsing while delivering a package in 113-degree heat. Video shows the uniformed driver stumbling up to the front stoop before keeling over. After lying on the ground for a few minutes, the delivery man stood up, rang the doorbell and made his way back to his truck.

In California, UPS driver Esteban Chavez Jr. died of suspected heatstroke just days shy of his 24th birthday. His family told local news outlets that Chavez was found collapsed in the front seat of his vehicle by the Pasadena, Calif., homeowner to whom he had just delivered a package.

Chavez’s death has garnered the attention of lawmakers working to pass legislation in Congress to require OSHA to establish regulations protecting workers from heat within two years.

“This kind of tragic death is completely preventable,” Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) said at a press conference about the legislation last month (E&E Daily, July 21).

It’s not just UPS. OSHA data reviewed by E&E News shows that the vast majority of mail carriers stricken with heat illness work for UPS or the U.S. Postal Service — two mail services whose workers largely drive trucks that are not air conditioned.

Between 2015 and 2021, the Postal Service reported more than 150 heat-related incidents to OSHA, and UPS reported 117. Not every incident report specifies what the worker was doing when they were stricken by heat illness, but many mention drivers who became overwhelmed by high temperatures in un-air-conditioned trucks.

By comparison, FedEx, whose trucks are air conditioned, only reported seven cases of heat illness during the same time frame.

“Air conditioning in trucks is a huge, huge factor here,” said Juley Fulcher, a worker health and safety advocate with Public Citizen, noting that such mitigation measures are crucial as climate change makes heat waves more intense and last longer.

Of course, Fulcher said, there are other aspects of delivery jobs that make drivers particularly vulnerable to heat exhaustion and stroke. Those include the intensive schedules workers keep. And, she noted, UPS is well-known for trying to eliminate any inefficiencies along its routes, monitoring drivers to ensure they only take left turns when absolutely necessary, as turning right saves the company time and money.

“If they can monitor their drivers to that extent, they can be monitoring the temperature in their trucks and giving them rest breaks and air conditioning,” Fulcher said. “The speed they are working, the heavy boxes they are lifting, all of that plus the heat makes the job very dangerous.”

Castillo agrees.

“Our supervisors tell us to hydrate and then get back to work, they just don’t want us to be late on our deliveries, but water isn’t enough,” he said. “These are record-breaking heat waves, and you’re more worried about micromanaging us than our safety and our health. The higher-ups don’t care about us; they don’t care about climate change.”

While OSHA is currently working on a regulation specifically to dictate what employers need to do to protect workers from heat, the agency has not shied away from investigating delivery services for heat-related problems in the past.

OSHA has issued seven citations for heat-related issues at UPS since 2011 and an additional eight hazard alert letters to the company.

‘Those trucks are nothing but an oven’

The agency has also issued citations against the Postal Service after a number of rural letter carriers working out of a post office in Martinsburg, W.Va., suffered from heat exhaustion in 2016.

One letter carrier got so dizzy delivering mail that she had to rest inside a home on her route. She was later hospitalized for two days because the heat had caused her kidneys to stop functioning.

Jordan Barab, who worked at OSHA as deputy assistant secretary of Labor for occupational safety and health during the Obama administration, said he remembers the cases well, and said there were multiple times when the agency had to crack down on the Postal Service during his tenure.

“We had a report with one local postmaster who had ordered his drivers not even to open their windows, because every time they made a stop, they would have to roll them back up, which is a significant loss of time,” he said. “It was absurd. The trucks don’t even have air conditioning, and they were being told they couldn’t open the windows. We called the postmaster and said, ‘You can’t do this.’”

National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association President Ronnie Stutts said the Postal Service used to be very insensitive to drivers’ complaints. When letter carriers would call supervisors to complain that they were suffering heat-related symptoms, like dizziness and cramping, “they would tell them to stay out there,” he said.

To beat the heat, he said, many drivers resorted to purchasing a product called “Cool Dat Azz,” which was essentially a massive ice pack the size of a driver’s seat.

“You’d take a gallon jug, freeze it in there, and then the water would circulate through the cushion on the seat,” Stutts recalled. “It worked very well to help keep you cool without AC, because those trucks are nothing but an oven.”

Stutts said the extra OSHA scrutiny in 2016 helped to improve conditions at the Postal Service, even though those citations were later overturned by a court that disagreed about whether OSHA had the ability to protect workers from heat without a specific regulation.

Many letter carriers still must work in trucks without air conditioning, but Stutts said supervisors are more conscious of the dangers heat poses, providing water and Gatorade to drivers before they leave on their shifts. They’ve also gotten better about allowing drivers to take breaks to cool down in air-conditioned spaces, he said.

“People still get overheated and get too hot in those trucks, but I do think that the post office is really paying a lot more attention to this now, and they tend not to send people out when they are feeling overheated,” he said.

Critically, the Postal Service has been working to upgrade its fleet, and all vehicles purchased since 2003 are equipped with air conditioning.

However, some 160,000 so-called Long Life Vehicles without air conditioning are still in operation, according to Postal Service spokesperson Darlene Casey.

To keep all drivers safe, the Postal Service has a Heat Illness Prevention Program for all employees that includes safety training to help them “identify the symptoms of heat exhaustion or heat stroke,” she said. If they experience such symptoms, carriers are told to call 911.

“Our carriers deliver the mail throughout the year during varying temperatures and climatic conditions,” Casey said. “This includes during the summer months, when the temperatures rise throughout the country. The safety of our employees is a top priority.”

‘Sending drivers out to die’

UPS, however, has made no moves to provide air conditioning to drivers.

Asked by E&E News why UPS trucks don’t have air conditioning and how that might contribute to rates of heat illness among employees, spokesperson Matthew O’Connor wrote in an email that UPS delivery vehicles “make frequent stops, which requires the engine to be turned off and the doors to be opened and closed, about 130 times a day on average.” UPS previously told Insider that because its drivers must stop so frequently to make deliveries, and because their truck doors are often left open, air conditioning would be “ineffective.”

O’Connor said UPS has “studied heat mitigation with our vehicles,” which have vents to increase airflow around drivers and in the cargo area.

He also explained how the company, which employs some 450,000 delivery drivers, supports “employee safety and comfort on the job.” The company has already provided water, ice and electrolyte-replacement beverages to drivers, O’Connor said, and is now taking additional steps to protect workers, including distributing 260,000 new uniforms with “wicking dry-fit shirts,” “making more than 125,000 cooling towels available” and “accelerating the installation of fans in UPS vehicles.”

“All of these efforts and collaboration are designed to ensure that every UPS employee makes the most important daily stop, when they safely arrive home after their workday,” O’Connor wrote.

None of that is enough for UPS drivers.

Following a July heat wave in New York, UPS workers protested outside the company’s Foster Avenue warehouse in Canarsie, Brooklyn, demanding that the company provide air-conditioned trucks.

While the Teamsters union, which represents UPS drivers and organized the protest, notes that many other delivery companies, such as Amazon and FedEx, air-condition their trucks, it says UPS could employ a number of other strategies to help keep drivers safe and cool.

Earlier this month, the union wrote a letter to the company demanding that UPS provide fans, cooling towels and more breathable uniforms to every truck and driver. Currently, drivers must make a special request for fans, and not all requests are approved.

The Teamsters also want UPS to create more full-time package driver positions, which would lighten individual drivers’ routes on hot days, giving them more time to rest and hydrate.

“The Teamsters will not stand by and allow a multibillion-dollar employer to force our members into extreme heat without the protection they need to avoid heat-related illness and death,” General President Sean O’Brien said. “By refusing to implement these safety measures, the company is literally sending drivers out to die in the heat.”

UPS’s contract with the union expires next year, and the letter is part of a broader push for heat protections in a new contract.

While Castillo, the Brooklyn-based driver, said he hopes the union can win more protective measures in a new contract, he’s worried about how high temperatures will affect his health until a deal is finalized.

“I really hope that next summer, they will do something different, but we shouldn’t have to wait until next summer,” he said. “They push us to the point where we are breaking our bodies. They should do something about that right now.”

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