Feeling The Heat: Outdoor Workers Brave The Weather And Hope For Change

Toni Sutton-Deangelico

Dangerous heatwaves have swept across the United States this summer, with temperatures soaring in cities like Boston and New York. In Minneapolis the temperature reached 115 degrees — the highest it’s been in over eight years. Those that work outside continue to suffer through the excessive heat every year.

It’s a scene that plays out on farm fields, construction sites, on airport tarmacs, and on delivery routes for mail carriers. Workers are falling ill after laboring in hot and humid conditions for longs hours without enough water and rest. Many employees have had heat-related illnesses that were serious enough that they had to miss at least one day of work.

In severe cases heat-related injuries to workers are fatal. Unfortunately, OSHA’s records are filled with stories of employees that have died from the heat. According to the data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 350 workers nationwide have died from heat-related illness.

Even though construction workers make up one-third of these worker deaths, workers in industries such as landscaping, agriculture, and transportation are also vulnerable to the dangers of extreme heat.

Government Involvement

For the last several years, labor leaders have called on the federal government to create national regulations that lay out steps employers should take to ensure their workers were safe when working in extreme heat. Last month, U.S. Reps. Judy Chu (D-Calif) and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) introduced legislation that would, for the very first time, require OSHA to develop heat-related workplace standards.

Currently, only three states have heat-related labor standards in place: California and Washington, which protect workers that are outdoors, and Minnesota, that safeguards employees that work inside. California created regulations in response to a wave of farmworker deaths more than a decade ago. In other states, like New Jersey, employees have to take matters in their own hands. A New Jersey nurse, Theresa Klenk, has started an online petition to get the United Parcel Service (UPS) to add air conditioners on its trucks. She wants to protect her husband and other UPS drivers from becoming ill from excessive heat.

Workers’ Stories

Workers in several cities spoke with WorkersCompensation.com about the safety measures they take when the temperatures heat up, and the changes they would like to see their employers adopt.

“On days at work where it’s over 90 degrees, I try and take a break in the shade every 20 minutes or so. I always apply sunblock, and I wear a hat. At all times, I always have a bottle of cold water with me,” said Tyler O’Connor-Hoy, an irrigation technician and groundskeeper for the Poway Unified School District in San Diego, Cal. “In my opinion, it would be great if my employer would provide me with some sort of temporary shade. Maybe something like a pop-up canopy, for instance. That would definitely help me out when I’m battling with the heat as I work.”

Amir Kashif, from Las Vegas, NV, has been a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service (USPS) for five years. “USPS needs more trucks that have air conditioning in them, and to be honest it should be mandatory,” he said. “Vegas’ weather is brutal for many months out of the year, and it doesn’t make sense that all trucks don’t come with AC.”

He added, “I make sure to bring water with me when I start my day, and I make a point to stop during my workday to rehydrate. They should give us clothing that is made to keep us cooler during these hot months.” Kashif also said that he hopes another fellow mail carrier does not have to lose his life, from working in extreme temperatures.

A mail carrier from Indiana who has worked for the company for just over three years and wished to be anonymous said in an emailed statement, “It’s a USPS policy that we can take as many breaks as necessary to be safe, but there is usually a lot of pressure to get the job done. So, I feel that on the one hand, the company does give us enough breaks when it comes to surviving the sweltering heat, but on the other, I don’t think they do.” He, like Kashif, also feels that all vehicles should have a/c or better ventilation, as well as insulation between the cabin and the engine.

The mail carrier also noted that his customers often give him cold water, which helps out a lot. When he takes his extra breaks, he makes sure he takes them in well air-conditioned buildings and drinks plenty of water. When the weather is warm, he also moves at a slower pace, so he doesn’t exert himself.

WorkersCompensation.com reached out to USPS and UPS, but did not receive any comment from either organization before press time.

Employers are responsible for protecting their employees at all times from safety hazards, and that includes weather and extreme temperatures. To make sure they were doing so, OSHA introduced a campaign in 2011 to make sure that employers, as well as their workers, were educated about the dangers of working in hot temperatures. Training sessions, informational meetings, and outreach events were offered to millions of employers and workers so they could learn about protecting themselves and others while working in intense heat.

Last year, OSHA, in conjunction with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), developed a free app. The OSHA-NIOSH Heat Safety Tool App can be downloaded on Android and iOS devices, can determine the heat index values, which measure how hot it actually feels to the skin, based on the combination of he temperature and humidity.

News brought to you by WorkersCompensation.com