This story was published in partnership with The Weather Channel.
The heat index hit 101 degrees Fahrenheit in the middle of June when a mailman in Iowa called for help finishing his route. The air was thick with humidity, making it harder for his body to cool itself. He had already spent more than five hours alternating between a truck with no air conditioning and deliveries on foot with a bag full of mail. Later, a coworker who saw him at a gas station would remember how pale and clammy his skin looked.
But the head of his post office chided him for complaining — responding, “How hot do you think it is in Afghanistan?” — and told him to keep going, according to inspection records from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). By the time the mailman stopped working three hours later, he’d fallen sick from the heat, his body shaking uncontrollably. He couldn’t come to work the next day. Two of his colleagues also had symptoms of heat stress. “There was no regard for the employee’s health,” an OSHA inspector wrote about the incident.
The U.S. Postal Service has a reputation for delivering mail no matter the weather. Mail carriers often bear the brunt of that commitment. As climate change increasingly presses temperatures up, government records show that USPS hasn’t consistently safeguarded employees’ health in extreme heat.
Since 2012, OSHA has cited USPS for exposing about 900 employees across the country to the risks of heat-related illness and death. Inspection records describe workers experiencing extreme muscle cramps, vomiting while walking, losing consciousness, feeling shooting pains in their head and chest and getting heatstroke, among other conditions. Over the same years, at least five mail carriers have died from heatstroke, heat exhaustion, hyperthermia or heart failure with heat as an underlying factor.
From January 2015 to October 2018, at least 93 USPS employees were hospitalized for confirmed or suspected heat-related illness, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of OSHA data. The United Parcel Service (UPS), a private mail delivery company, reported a similarly high number of heat-related hospitalizations to OSHA. A UPS spokesman said the company has a heat injury prevention program and that the number of incidents reported to OSHA represents less than one tenth of one percent of its driver workforce.
Brenda Jacklitsch, an occupational heat stress expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, known as the CDC, said pressure to deliver mail efficiently makes heat stress an especially serious concern for postal workers. Supervisors don’t always realize how grave the risks are, she said.
“Heat can kill you, and it can kill you very quickly,” she said. “It’s really the employers’ job to make sure their workers are safe.”
In a written statement, USPS media relations manager Dave Partenheimer said the agency started a national heat illness prevention program in 2018 that provides mandatory training to workers. “The safety of our employees is a top priority,” he wrote.
A U.S. Department of Labor spokesperson said that OSHA is “aggressively” pursuing litigation against USPS through the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission related to heat-related illnesses postal employees have suffered.
The risks hot weather poses to workers have been known for decades. CDC researchers first wrote guidelines on how to protect employees from heat in 1972, describing how symptoms can quickly progress from discomfort and nausea to a disruption of the central nervous system and finally to sometimes-deadly heatstroke if employers don’t take preventative measures. Despite efforts by the Labor Department and the CDC to raise awareness, more than 2,000 workers suffered heat-related illnesses in 2017, according to the latest data, and more than 30 died.
The federal government doesn’t have an official standard for heat exposure, making it harder for OSHA to hold employers accountable or issue large fines. In 2018, hundreds of organizations and individuals requested OSHA develop a standard, but the agency hasn’t taken it up. The path to formalizing protections is long and steep — industry groups often lobby extensively against them.
Congress could provide a workaround. This July, U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., sponsored a bill that would require OSHA to propose a regulation within two years for preventing heat-related injuries and illnesses.
Scientists expect a higher number of heat-related deaths in the coming decades as heat waves worsen across the U.S. But Thomas Bernard, an occupational health expert at the University of South Florida who has advocated for the development of a heat standard, said the workers have needed better protections for a long time. Because heat can quickly cause harm, he said, workplace emergency plans are crucial.
“[Employers] need to be able to recognize it early and cool them effectively,” said Bernard, who has studied the threat heat poses to workers for more than 40 years.
Though agricultural and construction workers are among the hardest hit by extreme temperatures, USPS is one of the most often-cited employers for heat-related offenses. Demanding delivery schedules with little time for rest are part of the reason mail carriers are vulnerable.
For those on foot, there’s the continuous time outdoors carrying a heavy load. And in vehicles without air conditioning, heat levels can rise well above outside temperatures. In 2017, about 70 percent of USPS delivery trucks were reported to not have air conditioning. USPS’ Partenheimer said he was unable to give an up-to-date figure.
Last year, 63-year-old mail carrier Peggy Frank was found dead in her non-air-conditioned truck in a Los Angeles neighborhood on a day when the temperature reached 115 degrees. A California congressman responded with the Peggy Frank Memorial Act, a bill to guarantee air conditioning for all USPS trucks. But the bill attracted only two cosponsors and hasn’t advanced since being referred to the House Oversight and Reform Committee in February.
More than 230,000 people have signed an online petition for mail carriers to get air-conditioned vehicles. “It is illegal to leave a child or an animal in a vehicle in these conditions, shouldn’t the same be applied to us?” wrote the petition’s organizer, a mail carrier based in Arizona. “I know I don’t even have a place to cool down on my lunch break.”
OSHA has also accused USPS of failing to provide mail carriers with water or inform workers about their heightened need for caution on hot days. That was the case in Louisville, Kentucky, where a letter carrier fell ill on a day when the heat index — which includes the effect of humidity — reached 100 degrees. Workers said they were technically allowed to take breaks but were also told they would face questions about why their route took longer to complete. Thirty percent of heat-related hospitalizations USPS reported from 2015 to 2018 mentioned dehydration.
Sometimes mail carriers must rely on customers for help. A mailman based in Monroe, Louisiana, collapsed on his route in 2015 even after a resident had given him a Gatorade. He described pain from severe cramps unlike any he had ever felt. OSHA records note that he emitted “piles of vomit” as a result of heat exhaustion.
When OSHA accuses USPS of failing to protect workers from heat, the postal service nearly always contests the allegations and often fights to reduce penalties. In the Kentucky case, USPS said that OSHA’s recommendations for protecting workers “would be technologically and/or economically infeasible or impossible” and that compliance with OSHA’s standards would “create a greater hazard” for employees.
To provide a safe environment, OSHA suggested adjusting work schedules when temperatures become potentially hazardous, ensuring that employees get medically appropriate rest breaks and hydration, and training managers and employees to recognize and respond to symptoms of heat-related illness.
Mail carriers contacted by the Center for Public Integrity said they could not discuss the matter without permission from their employer. When the Center requested an interview with an employee through USPS’ public relations office, it was declined. But online, dozens of people identifying themselves as postal workers have been vocal about the physical toll of delivering mail in heat and their skepticism that USPS tries hard to protect them.
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“It was close to 120° in my truck all day yesterday. Safety is just for show. They don’t actually care about safety. Or their employees,” a mail carrier wrote on Reddit. A fan in the worker’s truck was broken, and the worker reported still waiting more than a week after requesting repairs.
That employee was responding to the news of another mail carrier’s death in June. According to a union officer who posted on Reddit’s discussion section for USPS employees, in Missouri, 31-year-old Rosalyn Kamaria Westfall reported signs of heat exhaustion to a supervisor but was instructed to continue working. She went to bed that night and never woke up. Later, local officials determined that she died from spontaneous coronary artery dissection, not heatstroke. Her death nonetheless sparked conversation about the risks heat poses to mail carriers this time of year.
The employee who posted about Westfall’s death warned mail carriers to take care of themselves regardless of whether supervisors give permission: “Go home for the day. Period. Get out of the heat. Protect yourself.”