So far, summer 2023 has seen temperatures reach record highs across the country.
Temperatures in Texas, for example, have climbed into the 110s in cities such as Del Rio (115), Laredo (115) and San Angelo (114).
Getting accurate counts of heat-related illnesses and deaths can be difficult, but it’s clear that oppressive heat can exacerbate other potentially fatal health conditions.
An official cause has not been confirmed in the case of United States Postal Service (USPS) mail carrier Eugene Gates Jr., but extreme temperatures are believed to have played a role in his death on June 20, when Gates collapsed while delivering mail on his route in a Dallas-area neighborhood.
(About one month before his death, Gates was disciplined by USPS for a “stationary event,” National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 132 President Kimetra Lewis told Dallas-based television station WFAA. According to Lewis, management at the post office in the Oak Lawn neighborhood of Dallas have also sent a note to Oak Lawn carriers’ scanners that read: “BEAT THE HEAT! NO STATIONARY EVENTS; KEEP IT MOVING!)
Within weeks of Gates’ passing, a group of lawmakers penned a letter to USPS Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, expressing “deep concerns” over the working conditions of USPS employees, specifically with respect to letter carriers, and urging the USPS to implement policies designed to prevent heat-related deaths from occurring on the job.
In Search of Answers
In its July 7 letter to DeJoy, members of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Accountability pointed out that Gates was not the first USPS employee to die working in the midst of a heat wave.
In July 2012, for instance, 28-year USPS veteran John Watzlawick died of heat-related illness shortly after arriving at a Kansas City-area emergency room following his collapse on his mail route in Independence, Miss. Reports cited a heart attack as a likely secondary cause of death.
In 2019, Woodland Hills, Calif. mail carrier Peggy Frank was found dead “in her air-conditioned mail truck,” according to the lawmakers’ letter, which notes that temperatures in the area where Frank delivered mail were around 115 degrees at the time. The Los Angeles County Coroner’s office listed her cause of death as an abnormally high body temperature resulting from exposure to extreme heat. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) subsequently cited the USPS for a failure to provide and maintain a work environment free from recognizable hazards such as excessive heat, the letter read.
Citing such examples of mail carriers’ heat-related deaths while on the job, the letter requests that the USPS provide answers to a series of questions, such as:
- What measures does the Postal Service currently have in place to address heat-related risks to mail carriers?
- How many requests were submitted in the past 12 months by letter carriers or employee unions to adjust delivery times to avoid high heat indexes or other extreme heat conditions?
- What are the Postal Service’s justifications for not allowing letter carriers to begin delivery times earlier in the day to avoid rising heat indexes or other extreme heat conditions?
- Will the Postal Service prioritize vehicle repair and replacement in areas where dangerous and extreme weather conditions have the potential to affect letter carriers’ safety?
“We understand that employee unions attempted to mitigate the risks to letter carriers by requesting commonsense solutions. For instance, we understand that some local unions requested the opportunity to begin mail delivery earlier in the day to avoid being on their routes when temperatures hit their peak,” the legislators wrote, adding that a 2020 analysis of OSHA records showed the agency issued more than $1.3 million in initial fines against the USPS for heat hazards over an eight-year span.
“Despite these numerous and continued violations,” the committee members concluded, “it appears the Postal Service has yet to comprehensively address this issue and adopt nationwide work conditions policies that prevent these avoidable, tragic deaths.”
19 July 2023
HR News Article