Postal Workers Are Dying In Heat Waves. It’s Only Going To Get Hotter.
Illustration: Hokyoung Kim for HuffPost
When Peggy Frank returned to her mail route following three months of medical leave, Los Angeles was in the middle of a scorching heat wave.
The 63-year-old letter carrier had slipped on a patch of wet leaves and broken her ankle in March, and she spent the spring at home in a walking boot. Although the injury still bothered her, Frank had been cleared to go back to work. She was just two years away from retirement when she climbed back into her U.S. Postal Service truck on July 6, 2018.
The temperature had topped out in the high 80s in the first days of the month, but then it shot up dramatically after the July 4 holiday, putting Southern California under an extreme heat advisory. On July 5, the highs surpassed 100 degrees.
Frank’s sister, Lynn Calkins, had warned her to be safe as she prepared for her first day back. “I said, ‘You’re not used to it. Just be careful,’” Calkins recalled.
The two shared a townhouse in the North Hills neighborhood, and Calkins always made sure the ice trays were filled the evening before a hot day so Frank could load up her water jug before heading out at 7:30 a.m.
Getting an early start on her Woodland Hills route only helped so much ― it was closing in on 100 degrees in downtown Los Angeles by late morning. By the afternoon, the weather stations in nearby Burbank and Van Nuys, in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, hit 114 and 117, respectively ― the hottest temperatures ever recorded there.
Frank would have found no respite in her mail truck. Most of the Postal Service fleet is roughly three decades old and not equipped with air conditioning. The only relief is a pair of open windows and a small fan attached to the dashboard.
Frank struggled to keep pace. About 2 p.m., she called her supervisor to say she was falling behind and might not finish on time ― standard practice for a letter carrier who’s lagging, since managers want to avoid running into overtime.
The post office dispatched another employee to meet Frank on her route and give her a hand.
When her colleague reached her, Frank was unconscious in the driver’s seat. Paramedics recorded her death at 3:35 p.m.
‘Neither Snow Nor Rain Nor Heat’
Working for the Postal Service can be a surprisingly dangerous job. While back sprains and dog bites are common for letter carriers, some of the greatest hazards are encapsulated in the agency’s unofficial motto: Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
An analysis of records shows the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued more than $1.3 million in initial fines against the Postal Service for heat hazards in eight years ― a large sum by OSHA standards. In many cases, the Postal Service managed to negotiate those fines down to a few thousand dollars each, or even to nothing at all, by agreeing to address the hazards.
But the continued accumulation of big-ticket citations for repeat violations shows the Postal Service hasn’t fixed its problem. OSHA files share common themes: carriers toiling inside hot vehicles, feeling pressured to complete their routes on time, and returning to work in dangerously hot weather without being acclimatized. They also show postal officials pointing to the agency’s troubled finances in pleas to reduce fines while working to limit the legal scope of agreements to protect employees.
After Missouri letter carrier John Watzlawick died of hyperthermia in 2012, OSHA cited the Postal Service for willfully violating safety law and issued a fine of $70,000. The Postal Service agreed to implement new safeguards in 2014 to settle the case, but Watzlawick’s widow, Kay, has watched with dismay as the citations have continued.
“I want something done,” she told HuffPost.
An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity last year found that the Postal Service had exposed about 900 workers to heat hazards since 2012, leading to muscle cramps, vomiting and loss of consciousness. Close to 100 workers had been hospitalized for heat-related illnesses since 2015, the site reported. Because the hospitalizations are self-reported by employers, the full tally over that span is likely higher and wouldn’t reflect the times when workers got sick but didn’t end up in the hospital.
Of at least four carriers whose deaths since 2012 involved heat, three had recently returned to work from a long absence. Occupational health experts say it’s critical that workers who have been off the job are eased back into their roles over the course of several days so that their bodies have time to readjust to high temperatures.
Debbie Berkowitz, who worked as a chief of staff and senior adviser at OSHA and is now a safety expert at the National Employment Law Project, said these large penalties are rare. “These are fines given to companies where OSHA has really solid evidence that they knew about the hazard and they still haven’t abated the conditions,” said Berkowitz. “I think getting the mail to customers is such a big priority that they have overlooked protecting their workers ― and overlooked it repeatedly.”
The Postal Service’s sprawling workforce includes about 340,000 letter carriers, and whatever the weather may bring, Americans expect their mail six days a week. Though the agency declined to make an official available for an interview on the subject, a spokesperson said the USPS formalized a heat illness prevention program in 2018, drawing on protocols that were already in place, and that employee safety is a “top priority.” In regular meetings, workers are reminded to stay hydrated, wear cool clothing, find shade if necessary and call 911 if they start to experience heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
The spokesperson said supervisors provide mandatory training on the signs of heat illness and make sure workers “have the resources needed to do their jobs safely.”
But the challenges will only become greater as heat records continue to be broken due to global warming. The Los Angeles Daily News, which covered Frank’s death closely, reported that another carrier from the same post office was hospitalized for heat illness a year ago, on a day when the temperature hit 100.
Climate Change Is Making Hot Days Hotter
Postal workers make for a disturbing case study in the evolving dangers of outdoor work. Anyone who does a physical job exposed to the elements will face greater hazards as the climate changes. And many workers, such as roofers, farmworkers and landscapers, are doing strenuous jobs without the union protections that postal employees have, making them more reluctant to speak up.
“As a rule of thumb, if we fail to act to reduce carbon emissions, then by midcentury a typical summer day will be as hot as the hottest single day of summer is today,” said Michael Mann, a climatologist who directs the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.
“And the hottest day of summer? There is simply no analog in the past for what that will look like.”
BELOW: The number of extremely hot days each summer will increase significantly due to global warming.
In some respects, that disturbing future has already arrived. The year 2019 was the second-hottest in 140 years of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration records, falling behind only 2016. So far, 2020 is shaping up to be even more sweltering than last year. Based on temperature data through May, the NOAA says this year is “virtually certain” to crack the top five and stands a nearly 50% chance of being the hottest ever.
At HuffPost’s request, Michelle Tigchelaar, a climate scientist at Stanford University, analyzed how much more vulnerable letter carriers will be to extreme heat as global warming worsens. Factoring in clothing, work pace and access to shade, Tigchelaar’s data assumes a day in which the heat index hits 94.5 degrees Fahrenheit constitutes a danger to carriers. Her findings show that workers would face far more unsafe working days under an increase of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), let alone 4 degrees (7.2 F).
The new working environment will be much worse in the South and Midwest. For instance, a letter carrier in Detroit now faces about 10 days a year in which the heat index hits 94.5. But under a 3.6-degree F increase, that jumps to 43 days a year. Under a 7.2-degree increase, it shoots up to 79 days a year. In places like Miami, Phoenix and Houston, more than one out of every three days each year would pose a heat hazard.
There are several ways outdoor workers can mitigate heat ― working at a slower pace, taking frequent breaks, having access to air conditioning. Most of them come with a loss of productivity or some other expense. Employers will have to shift schedules around, keeping workers indoors during the hottest hours. For postal employees, that could mean delivering parcels after dark, raising other safety concerns.
And unlike, say, agricultural work, which will shift geographically as the climate changes, parcels will still need to be delivered in the most oppressively hot regions. Even though there will be fewer heat waves in mild climates like Seattle, the workers in those areas will be less physiologically prepared when the temperature does soar.
Keeping all workers safe in heat can be tricky because everybody’s resilience is different. Some workers can tolerate much more than others. For someone like Peggy Frank, there was no knowing where her limit was until she passed it.
BELOW: Letter carriers will face far more unsafe working days due to extreme heat as global warming worsens. A sampling of major cities:
Grumman Postal Vehicles ‘An Easy Bake Oven On Wheels’
When Grumman produced the bulk of the current fleet of postal vehicles, they had a life expectancy of 24 years. That was about 30 years ago. The “long life vehicle,” as it’s known, lacks newer equipment, such as anti-lock brakes. And breakdowns have become a growing problem. The trucks are so old that several dozen catch fire every year, as Vice recently reported.
But as any carrier in warmer climes knows, the trucks can get hot even without the engine combusting.
“It’s a little Easy-Bake Oven on wheels,” said Richard Salinas, who delivered mail in Texas for 35 years before retiring this year. “You’re sitting right behind the engine block, and there’s no firewall. All the engine heat comes into the cab. As far as the floor is concerned, it’s a rubber mat. All the radiant heat from the street comes in there.”
Photos an Arizona letter carrier took last year purportedly showed a steak in a plastic bag slowly cooking on a mail truck’s dash to 142 degrees ― what a chef might consider “medium” these days. Such anecdotes do not seem far-fetched to Barb Larson, who retired from the Postal Service in Colorado last April. Larson chose to hang it up in the springtime to avoid one last summer, despite her area’s comparatively mild weather.
“I’ve put thermometers on the floorboards and it’s 135 degrees on the floor,” she said. “I can’t even imagine Phoenix or Florida or Texas.”
The Postal Service has been punting the procurement process for new delivery trucks while it’s strapped for cash. It has been racking up heavy losses for years, mostly due to a unique and onerous mandate from Congress that it pre-fund retiree health benefits years in advance ― a requirement no other agency is held to.
The steep drop in first-class mail due to the internet hasn’t helped ― nor has the coronavirus pandemic. When the economic slowdown hit, the agency said it expected to lose $2 billion per month. The damage hasn’t been as bad as feared, however, thanks to a boom in package delivery as homebound Americans shop more online.
The agency has not released details on its next batch of vehicles, but it is soliciting proposals now and hopes to award contracts by the end of this year. Even so, many carriers don’t expect air conditioning in the new trucks. The job requires constantly opening and closing windows and doors, a waste of cool air that the Postal Service may view as too costly.
“It’s not feasible to drive around with air conditioning running and the windows open delivering mail,” said a rural postmaster in the Southeast, who asked not to be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press.
As in other rural areas, many of this postmaster’s carriers work out of personal vehicles that are already equipped with air conditioning (the Postal Service reimburses workers who use their own cars). The postmaster said he constantly encourages his carriers to stay hydrated and rest if they need to: “If my carrier needs another five breaks to stay healthy, then they need those breaks. And if I tell them they’re gonna have it, they’re gonna get it.”
Brian Renfroe, the executive vice president of the National Association of Letter Carriers union, said even if the new vehicles don’t include freon-based air conditioning, they could still be a major improvement over the current ones if they have better air circulation. This problem is not unique to the Postal Service. As an NBC News investigation last year showed, more than 100 United Parcel Service drivers were hospitalized for heat-related illnesses from 2015 to 2018 while working out of trucks without air conditioning.
But old postal trucks are only partly to blame. Letter carriers often feel pressured to complete their routes without running into overtime, even during extremely hot weather, case files show. In several incidents in which the agency was cited for safety failures during high heat, postmasters had warned carriers to finish the job on time, making it difficult to take breaks in the shade.
Salinas said he would always take extra precautions when working his mail route in Austin, which has seen one of the largest increases in extremely hot days of any U.S. city over the last 40 years. That means pounding water during and before work and exercising several times a week to stay in shape. But one factor he could never control is management’s expectations.
“Of course they pay lip service to hydrate, take breaks and when you feel bad to stop in shade,” Salinas said. “They say all those things, but after they say that they’re cracking the whip: ‘Get out there on the street and come back.’ Some carriers feel that pressure.”
‘This Is Costing The Company Money We Don’t Have’
John Watzlawick’s death was supposed to change things. Watzlawick, a letter carrier in the Kansas City suburb of Independence, Missouri, for more than 27 years, missed five weeks in 2012 after knee surgery. When he returned in July, the heat was already so bad that two other postal workers in his area had been hospitalized a week earlier, one with renal failure.
The temperature hit 104 on Watzlawick’s first day back. His boss assigned him an extra hour and a half of overtime, OSHA records show. He had not been given time to acclimatize. By noon, he was flagging. He called his boss and asked if he could take a sick day. He was allegedly told to hydrate and finish the job. Another shaky worker was told he would be disciplined if he didn’t finish his route by 5:30 p.m., when overtime pay kicked in.
Watzlawick’s wife said that when her husband got home that night, he immediately stripped down to his underwear and passed out on the couch. He returned to work the following day, when the high hit 102. One of Watzlawick’s colleagues vomited while asking a supervisor for help on his route.
When Watzlawick called for an extra hand, his supervisor told him help would arrive later. At 2:50 p.m., he collapsed. Hospital staff recorded his core temperature at 108.7 before he died.
The Postal Service fought the $70,000 citation for willfully violating safety law, leading to a lengthy case before a review commission. Letter carriers from Watzlawick’s office testified it was made clear to them that heat was no excuse for being late delivering the mail. According to hearing documents, the local postmaster even complained to higher-ups that his carriers “just seem to give up on delivering mail when it’s hot out.”
“This is costing the company money we don’t have and I know this,” he wrote. (The Postal Service is not a company but an independent agency of the federal government.) His superiors told him “heat does not matter.”
The Postal Service developed a heat abatement program as part of a settlement with the letter carriers union after Watzlawick’s death, agreeing to acclimatize employees who have missed work. But it hoped to limit its obligations under the plan, according to documents obtained through a public records request.
Officials wanted leeway to acclimatize workers only when “operationally possible,” meaning they wouldn’t be required to if the post office was busy. They also wanted a heat index of 103 degrees as the trigger for certain requirements under the plan; a heat specialist had testified that some precautions should kick in at 91 degrees and others at a maximum of 100.
The Postal Service was still contesting the fine related to Watzlawick’s death when another letter carrier in Massachusetts died on the job in July 2013. Forty-five-year-old James Baldassarre collapsed on a day the heat index hit 100 degrees. His core temperature had climbed to 110. His wife said Baldassarre had texted her about the brutal heat before he died.
OSHA files show higher-ups in Baldassarre’s area discussed heat dangers, but supervisors failed to convey the safety procedures to carriers. Supervisors received several heat advisories in the weeks before Baldassarre’s death; carriers who were interviewed by OSHA said they were unaware of them. Supervisors were supposed to give a mandatory talk about heat stress the morning of what would turn out to be Baldassarre’s last day.
One local supervisor acknowledged he didn’t give the talk until the day after Baldassarre collapsed. Out of 11 letter carriers OSHA spoke to, not a single one was aware of a heat prevention program. Nine said they never received any instructions about heat until their colleague was hospitalized.
An OSHA official wrote in an internal letter that the Postal Service hoped to reduce the proposed fine for Baldassarre’s death due to “the current dire financial situation” at the agency. The Postal Service paid a $5,000 penalty and agreed to implement a heat prevention program in the area where Baldassarre died.
The following year, the judge confirmed a litany of failures in Watzlawick’s death and upheld the OSHA fines, saying the agency showed a “conscious disregard” for safety. The Postal Service petitioned unsuccessfully to have that decision overturned. In a letter to the review commission, postal officials argued they had little choice but to weigh safety against productivity: “It is always distasteful to balance the cost and practicality of protective measures against employee safety and health, but the Postal Service must consider those issues.”
Kay Watzlawick testified at the review hearing on her husband’s death. She recently said she was appalled by the additional citations since then and believes the agency has failed to keep carriers safe.
“That’s why I went to [testify], to prevent it from happening to anybody else,” she said. “But it didn’t help.”
New Standards For Protecting Workers From Heat
The Postal Service did codify important safety procedures when it settled the Watzlawick case. New employees would be trained in recognizing signs of heat stress. Each carrier would have a mobile “panic button” to alert the post office in an emergency. Carriers on walking routes would be given 64-ounce water containers. And, most critically, supervisors would implement a “work-rest” regimen on excessively hot days that guaranteed breaks for workers and designated air-conditioned or shaded areas on each route.
But the agreement came with a major loophole: It technically applied only to Watzlawick’s post office, in Independence. Even though the Postal Service recognized heat abatement as “essential” everywhere, the various steps laid out in the plan couldn’t be legally enforced elsewhere.
After workers in Pensacola, Florida, labored in excessive heat in 2015, supervisors there argued that they weren’t required to have a heat abatement program in place, according to the letter carriers union. A local union official filed a complaint with OSHA, prompting investigators to take the temperature inside trucks. OSHA issued a $70,000 fine for hazards. The Postal Service settled it at $7,500.
OSHA has cited the Postal Service for heat hazards at least 20 times since the Watzlawick case. A month after Peggy Frank died in 2018, a new carrier in Jacksonville, Florida, suffered acute kidney failure while training in high heat, according to documents. The Postal Service was fined $129,000 but is still contesting the penalty. The most recent heat citation came for an incident last September, in Phoenix. OSHA does not release documents for cases that are being appealed.
BELOW: Letter carriers will face far more dangerously hot working days between May and September due to global warming.
The Postal Service was not fined in the July 2017 death of a West Virginia letter carrier, but an investigation still revealed heat hazards. Ronnie Bowles collapsed on a customer’s porch and died on a day the heat index hit 85 degrees. An autopsy revealed he had an enlarged heart with blockages, but OSHA determined that the heat may have “contributed to his cardiovascular collapse” because he was unacclimatized. He had just returned to work after missing 24 days due to medical leave and vacation. He had fallen nearly an hour behind on his route when a resident found him.
Two supervisors in Bowles’ office didn’t know what a work-rest cycle meant and were unfamiliar with the term “acclimatization.”
“There is an emphasis on getting the mail delivered on time and as expected, which seems to replace the safety and health of the employee,” the OSHA investigator wrote. Despite all the previous citations, “there hasn’t been any further efforts to combat the heat related exposures.”
To punish the Postal Service, OSHA has often invoked what’s known as its “general duty” clause ― a broadly worded provision in an otherwise highly specific set of rules. The clause basically says that employers have a general responsibility to keep their workers safe. OSHA officials often wield it when the hazard is clear but they have no better language to lean on ― and typically only after a worker has been killed or badly injured. Employers tend to fight general duty citations as a matter of course. The Postal Service has appealed five heat citations to OSHA’s review commission, where cases often sit for years before a resolution.
David Michaels, who headed OSHA during the Barack Obama presidency, said the Postal Service generally opposes all citations. He said OSHA also levied hefty fines against the agency during his time there for serious electrical hazards in mail processing facilities.
“The challenge we faced is the U.S. Postal Service is already facing financial difficulties, and fining them millions of dollars is not necessarily good for the public and mail delivery,” said Michaels, now a professor at George Washington University. “It would be unfortunate if it takes more deaths and larger fines to convince the Postal Service to do the right thing.”
Experts like Michaels have been advocating for OSHA to develop a specific heat standard for all worksites it regulates, which could be far more effective than the general duty clause. If the law laid out employers’ responsibilities clearly, it would be harder for them to shift blame when someone gets hurt. It would also help OSHA crack down on dangerous workplaces before somebody dies, as opposed to after. But the business-friendly Trump administration has been hands-off when it comes to workplace safety, making it unlikely such a standard will be adopted anytime soon.
Some state regulators are filling that void. California implemented a series of heat standards starting in 2006 after several farmworkers died on the job. Many advocates believe they could serve as a federal model. The California law requires supervisors to keep a close eye on employees returning to work during high heat ― the sort of acclimatization guidelines that could have protected Frank. But as a postal employee in the federal sector, she was not covered by the state law.
For USPS, ‘A Lesson Unlearned’
The Los Angeles coroner’s office blamed Frank’s death on hyperthermia, with her weight and a previous heart condition as significant contributing factors. The high ambient temperature probably led to an abnormal heart rhythm, causing her sudden death, according to her autopsy. She left behind two adult children.
The safety director for Frank’s union issued an angry note to members around the country after her death, calling the Watzlawick tragedy “a lesson unlearned.” “Peggy was not provided any time to acclimate. She was sent out on her route because her employer refuses to embrace the medically proven fact that the human body must get used to its surroundings before it works at its best,” the official, Manuel Peralta Jr., wrote. “Peggy trusted her managers enough to go out there and deliver. Her employer failed her and, in doing so, failed her family.”
OSHA issued $150,000 in fines, but the Postal Service is contesting the violations. OSHA will not release its full findings while the Frank case is under appeal.
Frank’s death brought increased attention to the dangerous conditions letter carriers often face. Her congressman, Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D), introduced a bill last year that would require the Postal Service to have air conditioning in all of its vehicles, even retrofitting old ones if necessary. Cárdenas said he was shocked to learn most of them aren’t equipped with air-conditioning. The bill has drawn just three other co-sponsors, all Democrats, and a stony reception from postal management.
“They basically, in a nutshell, said, ‘That’s a fine idea. We can’t afford it. It’s way too much effort that we don’t have the resources for,’” Cárdenas said. “It’s not right. No person should be subjected to conditions that could take their life.”
Frank had hoped to work two more years before retiring, her sister said. The two had taken a cruise to Honduras and Belize together, and Frank planned to travel more in retirement. They had talked about moving to Idaho with friends and Frank’s Shih Tzu, Snookie.
Calkins believes the Postal Service should not have sent her sister outside in a mail truck on the day she died, especially after all the previous citations. “They paid the OSHA fines and, bam, it went back to the way it was.”
She hopes this time is different.
“It’s not going to get any cooler, I’m afraid,” Calkins said. “We’re in a lot of trouble in the next 25 or 50 years. Maybe sooner.”
Calling all HuffPost superfans!
Sign up for membership to become a founding member and help shape HuffPost’s next chapter