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The workers suffering – and dying – in extreme heat

For Peggy Frank, a Los Angeles letter carrier, any federal or California safety rule ordering her employer and all other firms  to protect workers from the hazards of excess heat didn’t work.

Frank, aged 63, collapsed and died from California’s monstrously high heat while delivering the mail in Woodland Hills, a section of Los Angeles, in mid-July. The temperature in that particular neighbourhood the day she died was 41.6°C (107°F).

Frank isn’t the only worker, old, young, or in between, to succumb to the dangers of the heat that has prostrated much of the country this year or in years past. She’s just the latest one.

And those deaths, among farm workers, lorry drivers, utility workers, construction workers, letter carriers and others who always work outside in hot conditions, led 130 groups, including several unions, and 88 public health specialists to formally petition the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to start rulemaking on requiring firms to protect their workers from heat.

In its 48-year existence, OSHA and state OSHAs, with exceptions for California, Minnesota, and Washington state, have never required companies to protect their workers from dangers from high outdoor heat, said Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, which assembled the petition to OSHA.

The petition goes hand in hand with “a national campaign to raise awareness around the impacts of climate change on the health and safety of workers, as well as other vulnerable populations, while advancing standards to prevent injuries and deaths from outdoor and indoor heat stress,” it said.

To raise that consciousness, the group released Extreme Heat And Unprotected Workers, a report on heat stress on workers, which they also submitted to OSHA.

The report covered agricultural and construction workers in areas of the US that experienced extreme heat in July 2017 and, using the same high heat standards, over the July 4 holiday week this year.

“Approximately 130 million workers around the country lack any protection from a heat stress standard,” a summary says. 

“According to the government, 69,374 workers were seriously injured from heat between 1992 and 2016 and 783 US workers died from heat exposure. These numbers are generally agreed to be gross undercounts.”

“OSHA can cite companies for heat stress violations under its General Duty Clause, but, from 2013-2017, Cal/OSHA, with a heat standard since 2006, performed 50 times more inspections than OSHA in which there was one or more citations or violations concerning heat,” the report adds.

That still didn’t stop collapses and deaths, union leaders, members, and safety experts said on July 17.

“Farm workers are not agricultural implements,” declared Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez.

“We attended the funerals of too many California farm workers who needlessly died from extreme heat,” he added. That led UFW to help persuade then Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the legislature to enact first-in-the-nation comprehensive heat standards in 2005 and Democratic Governor Jerry Brown to strengthen anti-heat-exposure rules a decade later.

“Republicans and Democrats can take action today to stop these unnecessary deaths by creating national standards such as those we won in California.”

Farm Workers union member Raudel Felix Garcia told of the shock he received from a phone call, almost precisely a decade ago, telling him heat killed his brother Audon just five days after he arrived in the US to pick grapes. Audon’s death helped prompt California to act against worker heat exposure.

Audon and a co-worker loaded 750 boxes, each weighing 25 pounds, onto a truck in 102°F heat. Heat exhaustion killed Audon. 

“My brother and his co-worker had no heat safety trainings or protocols” to battle heat illness, Raudel Garcia said. “That is unacceptable. If a job consists of being out in the sun, working long shifts in the worst conditions, employers need to protect their workers.”

But it’s not just farm workers.

“United Airlines is a company that makes billions in profit, but the trucks I work in do not have air conditioning,” said Unite Here member Arthur Fatu, a catering lorry driver for United Airlines in Houston. 

“I call my truck a travelling sauna. I have suffered from heat rash, dizziness and headache while working on hot days. Working in extreme heat puts us at risk of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.”

Dave LeGrande, the recently retired Communications Workers of America safety and health director, said telephone line workers are just as much at risk as other outdoor workers. 

Since 2000, the union saw three members killed by heat stress from working outdoors, the latest in 2011.

Though CWA has initiated and implemented heat education and anti-heat stress campaigns among its members and bargained in contracts to get firms to battle heat stress, “we do witness employer negligence which results in serious, but not fatal, heat stress health problems.”

“It is inhumane and inexcusable that, despite the long record of success of California’s worker safety agency, Cal/OSHA, in reducing heat-induced worker death and illness, the majority of US workers who are at risk for heat stress are unprotected by any heat standard,” said Dr Sidney Wolfe, the founder of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

All this is too late for Peggy Frank, though OSHA can use its general duty clause to punish the postal service for worker exposure to and death from high heat. The last time it did so was six years ago in Independence, Missouri, after a letter carrier collapsed and died that summer. OSHA fined USPS $70,000.

“To have my mom at 107 [degrees], humidity, carrying the mailbag around with no air conditioning in the car — yeah, I’m sure she’s probably gonna overheat,” Frank’s son Kirk Kessler told CBS2 News in Los Angeles.

This article first appeared at Peoplesworld.org.

 

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