Pasadena, CA (WorkersCompensation.com) – The death of a Southern California UPS driver may be a harbinger of what employers and policy makers can expect as climate change raises temperatures across the country.
While some states are changing laws surrounding working conditions, experts say more needs to be done to plan on climate change’s impact on workers.
On June 25, just one day after his 24th birthday, Esteban Chavez, Jr., a driver for UPS collapsed while working his route in Pasadena, Cal. He was discovered dead some 20 minutes later inside the non-air conditioned truck, officials said.
While the coroner has not confirmed his cause of death, his family believes the heat is to blame. That week, temperatures in Pasadena had been in the high 90s. UPS trucks are not air conditioned. The company came under fire in 2019 about the risks of heat-related illnesses, when an NBC News report found that the temperature in the cargo area of a UPS truck can get up to 140 degrees or higher.
UPS referred all questions surrounding Chavez’s death to local authorities.
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of our driver Esteban Chavez, and extend our deepest condolences to his family and friends. We are cooperating with the investigating authorities and are respectfully deferring questions about this incident to them,” the company said in a statement.
UPS had previously said that its trucks aren’t air conditioned because the frequent stops and size of the vehicle would make air conditioning “ineffective.” UPS does not air condition its large warehouses for similar reasons. The NBC report noted that UPS introduced a program called “Cool Solutions” in 2006, that raises awareness about working in hot conditions including educating workers on the symptoms of heat illness, reminding them to drink water, and encouraging them to report to a manager if they feel ill.
Nationally, according to a 2021 investigation by NPR and the Columbia Journalism Investigations unit of the Columbia Journalism School, at least 384 workers have died from environmental heat exposure in the U.S. in the last decade.
The investigation found that data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the average of worker heat deaths has doubled since the early 1990s.
A report by Public Citizen issued in June 2022 estimates those numbers to be much higher. Their investigation found that environmental heat is likely responsible for 170,000 work-related injuries every year, and between 600 to 2,000 worker deaths.
But the federal response to heat-related fatalities and injuries is lacking. No federal heat-related standards for working conditions exists, the publications said.
In October of last year, OSHA issued a notice of proposed rulemaking seeking additional information about “the extent and nature of hazardous heat in the workplace and the nature and effectiveness of interventions and controls used to prevent heat-related injury and illness.” Comments were due at the end of 2021, and the rulemaking was expected to come in 2022, but experts say changes to rulemaking can take years.
In April 2022, the agency did issue a National Emphasis Program (NEP) which covered 70 “high risk industries” that will get increased inspections and enforcement activity. For years, Melanie Paul, an attorney with Jackson Lewis said, OSHA has investigated complaints of heat stress and heat illness, as well as hospitalizations and fatalities resulting from heat-related illnesses in the workplace.
“These efforts have been mostly reactive,” she wrote in a blog post. “Now, (with the NEP) OSHA intends to ramp up outreach and enforcement in an effort to eliminate heat hazards in the work environment with the new proactive initiative.”
As part of the NEP, OSHA will be more pro-active, prioritizing on-site inspections for complaints and employer-related hospitalizations related to heat hazards. The agency will also perform inspections on businesses on a list generated randomly by computer software that uses industry codes covered by the NEP, as well as using data from workers’ compensation agencies for companies that may not fall into those industries. The agency will conduct heat inspections on the list on any day when the National Weather Service has announced a heat warning or advisory for the local area.
The NEP will also expand its inspections for other purposes to include heat-related inspections if they observe any hazardous heat conditions, and increase OSHA’s compliance outreach efforts on heat priority days. – when the heat index is 80 degrees or higher.
But the NEP lacks the teeth of a changed heat-related standard.
Instead, some states are taking action. As of October 2021, four states – Washington, California, Minnesota and Oregon – had declared hazardous heat standards that require employers in various industries and workplace setting to provide protection and abatement measures that would reduce the risk of heat-related illnesses.
Since passing its state occupational heat standard in 2005, research indicates that the new standard has lowered heat-related injuries. Looking at heat-related injuries in that state from 2001 to 2018, researchers found that the increase in injuries on hot days was cut by 30 percent in the years after the state issued the new standard.
Three other states – Colorado, Maryland and Nevada – had passed laws requiring state health and safety administrators to declare rules related to heat hazards in the workplace.
In the meantime, Paul said, businesses should evaluate conditions at their worksites and take steps to prevent heat-related illness among their workers.
“In particular, employers should keep in mind that employees who are required to engage in intense or continuous physical exertion, or who are exposed to high temperatures and humidity or direct sunlight, may be susceptible to heat-related illness,” she said. “OSHA has resources to help employers and employees stay safe when working in high-temperature and high-humidity conditions.”
Those resources, she said, are available on OSHA’s website dedicated to health hazards – https://www.osha.gov/heat-exposure.