Shortly after the sweltering summer heat reached Rich Dyer, a postman in St. George, the weather began to cool a little.
“Since the day I went out in late July, the weather has changed, it’s 10 degrees cooler every day,” said Dyer, whose doctor told him to take time off from mail delivery. “All of a sudden I’m breaking up … and they’ve agreed to be out of work for a month and the weather is cooler.”
It’s the second summer in a row that Dyer, 65, an Air Force veteran who has worked for the United States Postal Service for 17 years, has battled heat-related illnesses.
It’s a problem faced by mail carriers across the country. In Texas, postal workers demonstrated in San Antonio in August for better working conditions, while in a Dallas suburb in June a postman died of a suspected heat-related illness — a case that prompted congressmen to voice their concerns to the Postmaster General.
According to a 2019 Center for Public Integrity analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) data, between January 2015 and October 2018, at least 93 USPS employees nationwide were hospitalized for confirmed or suspected heat-related illnesses.
Reporting of heat-related deaths is inconsistent across the United States, The Associated Press reported in August — and Utah is one of two states that “does not record heat-related deaths in which exposure to extreme heat was a secondary factor.”
Phil Rodriquez, a 29-year USPS veteran and president of the Utah branch of the National Association of Letter Carriers, said, “More than any other summer I’ve worked, this has probably been the worst.”
At least three times a week, Rodriquez said, a trucking company called him and complained of symptoms of a heat-related illness. Often times, he said, these porters need medical attention.
When asked for a response, a USPS spokesman issued a statement that said, “The safety of our employees is our top priority.” Our carriers deliver mail year-round in varying temperatures and climatic conditions. This is also true during the summer months when temperatures soar across the country,” the statement said.
Working days in a “hot box”
When Dyer first joined USPS, he said, “I was told the position was a flexible, part-time job and that I would be working between 19 and 25 hours a week to start with. As it turned out [in] 17 years, I don’t think I’ve worked less than 40 hours more than about five weeks.”
Dyer’s route, he said, has 692 addresses. That’s about 620 physical stops he makes six days a week.
“My truck is filled to the roof almost every day, front door to back door,” Dyer said. “There really is no such thing as an eight-hour day. They work until the job is done.”
The truck, like many others in the USPS fleet, does not have air conditioning – which can be dangerous when working in the summer heat.
“They’re a hot box, they’re aluminum,” Dyer said, “and St. George doesn’t have a lot of shade, so the sun just burns down on you.”
On his route, he often stops every ten feet to drop off the mail at the doors, requiring a lot of walking between stops.
Because Dyer has diabetes and is “apparently very prone to dehydration,” he has blood tests every three months to check his kidney function. After his last test, he said, a doctor from the Department of Veterans Affairs called him and said, “You’re badly dehydrated. Your kidneys are almost non-functional.”
Dyer was given intravenous fluids for a few hours and his doctor gave him strict orders to stay away from work for a while because the heat could make things worse. Dyer said he suffers from back pain, dizziness and lightheadedness – all symptoms associated with dehydration and heat exhaustion.
Long shifts, short employees
Rodriquez said postmen are constantly exposed to the elements, working shifts of up to 11 hours.
“When you’re outside that long, 11 hours a day, and exposed to the sun, especially in the summer, you can’t avoid getting heat-related illness,” Rodriquez said.
“These vehicles have a temperature of up to 140 degrees and everything they have [them] is a fan,” he added. “It just blows out hot air.”
The reason for the long shifts, according to Rodriquez, is a lack of carriers, an ongoing problem since the COVID-19 pandemic. Both nationally and in the Salt Lake City area, where there are 11 post offices, “we’re critically understaffed,” he said.
“We have a mandate to deliver everything every day,” Rodriquez said, adding that he’s been working 60-hour weeks for four years. “It’s probably been like this for about five years, I have no hope of it getting better,” he said.
Although OSHA has guidelines for preventing heat-related illnesses, Rodriquez said the USPS’s protocols are inadequate.
“The program itself is basically nothing more than trying to stay hydrated. No more,” he said. “There are no precautions there to prevent heat-related injuries.”
One thing postal workers are taught is to monitor themselves for heat-related illnesses, he said. This does not always translate well to daily practice.
“So if a postman drives by and he stands still for X time, he’ll be brought in the next day and have to explain to his manager why he stood still for X time, under threat of disciplinary action,” Rodriquez said.
The USPS statement noted the Postal Service’s National Heat Disorder Prevention Program (HIPP), which “provides all employees with mandatory training and instruction on heat and other safety measures and ensuring they have the resources they need to… do their jobs safely.” … “Hauling companies are reminded to ensure they drink adequate fluids, wear appropriate clothing including hats, seek shade whenever possible and carry adequate water and ice on their routes” , the USPS statement said. “Transporters are also directed to contact 9-1-1 if they experience symptoms of heat exhaustion or heat stroke and are provided with information to help them recognize the symptoms associated with both of these forms of heat illness.”
Purchase of new trucks
In 2021, USPS announced a nearly $3 billion, 10-year contract with Oshkosh Defense, a Wisconsin company, to build a new generation of mail vehicles, about 50,000, that would feature upgrades such as air conditioning.
When the announcement was made, USPS assumed the first new trucks would hit the streets in October 2023. However, in May 2023, the service said those vehicles would not arrive until June 2024.
For some congressmen, ten years to modernize the USPS fleet is not fast enough. A bill, the Peggy Frank Memorial Act — named after a California postman who died on the job in 2018 — would require the Post Office to install air conditioning in its vehicles within three years. The bill was last introduced in the US House of Representatives in 2022, but did not go into effect.
When new vehicles arrive, Utah may not get them right away, said Mike Wahlquist, president of NALC Branch 111, which represents about 1,000 transportation companies from Bountiful to Orem and from Dugway to Heber City. Since it is a smaller market, Utah is likely to bring up the rear when purchasing the new air-conditioned trucks.
When the Teamsters union ratified a deal with United Parcel Service, one of the postal service’s biggest competitors, in August, one of the provisions was that by 2024 every newly purchased UPS vehicle should be equipped with air conditioning.
USPS, Wahlquist said, “is always 10 to 15 years behind what you want on vehicles.” …The vehicles we’ve used so far are many from 1987 to 1995. They’re all about 20 years old.”
Wahlquist said he started out as a mailman in 1987 and “the vehicles we had back then were worse and didn’t even have power steering.”
When he was in his 20s, Wahlquist said he suffered heat stroke at work from the pressure of delivering the mail. There’s no set quota USPS employees have to meet, but managers, he said, “have computer programs that try to pressure you by saying how long it should take in a perfect situation, but there aren’t any.” situation that is perfect.”
adaptation and coping
Richard Taylor has been a mailman in St. George for 28 years – and when he works in the heat he says: “The older you get, the rougher it gets.”
Taylor’s office, he said, delivers “almost all” Amazon packages in St. George. “We have Christmas volume packages every day,” he said.
However, he said he was lucky because his truck had air conditioning. It took him 25 years to do it though, and in that time he’s developed a few tricks to keep his head cool without it.
“I would stop [go] “Go to a supermarket or go to a store and just sit there and cool off,” he said.
When he was union president in St. George, Taylor said he suggested that USPS workers drive themselves to a grocery store, buy a Gatorade, and climb into the beer cooler for 5 to 10 minutes.
“Superiors [would] I said, ‘We can’t let everyone do that,’ and I said, ‘It’s either this or they fall. ‘What do you want?'” said Taylor.
But even with that trick, employees would have to spend their own money, Taylor said — unless a manager stashed a case of sports drinks around the office.
“A Friendship Relationship”
Rodriquez said it was “pretty scary” as president of the Utah union group to see these heat-related illness problems.
“It’s not sustainable,” he said. “I fear there will be more heat-related injuries, some of which could be fatal.”
Dyer said he will be going back to work on Friday. He was told by his doctor not to work more than eight hours a day, he said, “which means the Post Office can’t force me to work any more.”
Despite the challenges the job brings, Dyer said he genuinely enjoys the job. He carries a box of dog biscuits to calm any dogs on his route. One of his clients invites him to his Thanksgiving party every year.
“I know their children, their children’s birthdays … it’s not a client relationship anymore, it’s a friendship relationship,” he said. “I have developed a good relationship with my customers and know that I am providing them with a service. This is very important.”
Of the new air-conditioned vehicles USPS has ordered, Dyer said, “I’ll probably be retired long before I see these trucks.”
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