Headline heatwave: The cost of exposing P&D drivers to the elements

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Updated Jul 12, 2018

Is 132 degrees too hot for a driver?

It’s safe to assume that most of us would agree that temperatures that high inside a vehicle are too hot for man or beast.

But it’s possible that the temperature inside 63-year-old Peggy Frank’s mail truck reached that Death Valley-like high when she was found dead last Friday in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Woodland Hills.

It was that day that a new record high of 117 degrees was set, besting the old record from 1976 by 11 degrees.

A co-worker of Frank’s told the Los Angeles Daily News that drivers are required to keep their doors and windows locked for security reasons and that temperatures are about 10 to 15 degrees hotter inside the truck.

“They make us lock them and seal them for safety of the mail, but it’s horrible in there,” Joni Hogan Salvatore said.

We reached out to USPS and asked if there was such a policy. That question went unanswered. We asked other questions: What was the year, make and model of Frank’s truck? Is the temperature inside the vehicle monitored? Are fans required to be installed in lieu of A/C units? Will the post office’s new delivery vehicles come equipped with A/C?

All questions went unanswered perhaps because Frank’s death is now under investigation.

We did receive a statement from USPS in Washington, D.C. which offered “thoughts and prayers” to Frank’s family and reaffirmed the agency’s position of making safety a top priority. You can read that statement in full here.

To be sure, USPS reminds its carriers to stay “hydrated, wear appropriate clothing including hats, get in the shade whenever possible and to take sufficient amounts of water and ice with them on their routes.”

However, those guidelines may not be enough for all carriers, especially if the interior of a mail truck is hovering above 117 degrees and if the carrier has had health problems, as was the case for Frank who had recently returned to work following medical leave and reportedly had suffered a heat stroke last May.

Though the cause of Frank’s death has not been released, her family believes it was brought on by the extreme summer heat.

OSHA is now investigating, according to the Los Angeles Daily News. If it turns out that Frank succumb to heat exhaustion it certainly won’t be the first time USPS has been held accountable in heat-related safety violations that have resulted in deaths and injuries. You can read more about some of those citations here.

The sad part is that these ongoing heat exhaustion headlines can be avoided. Cab temperature monitoring can help. Devices range from an inexpensive, dash-mounted thermometer to more sophisticated telematics-based features which alert both fleets and drivers of rising temperatures. The problem with heat exposure is that it can slowly overpower its victims and cause confusion to the point that life-saving judgement takes a back seat. That’s why obviously it’s best that fleets monitor cab temperatures in parts of the country where it’s a concern so that they can intervene and make the call to bench a driver.

That, of course, leads to remote health monitoring options like core body temperature, pulse and blood pressure. If an employee is agreeable, then go for it. In fact, he or she may already be wearing a device, such as a Fitbit wristband health monitor, which measures vital indicators, like pulse and blood pressure, and can be programmed to send health alerts.

Besides heat exhaustion, we’ve all heard stories of drivers suffering heart attacks while out on the road. A former boss of mine who had a penchant for editorial writing had a fatal heart attack while driving and crashed into oncoming traffic. I never would have imagined seeing him in a headline like that. Undoubtedly, he would have felt horrible about the incident had he lived through it.

P&D driving certainly isn’t easy. Aside from navigating through bustling metros and child-filled neighborhoods, drivers are up against the elements like extreme hot and cold temperatures.

In an email I received this morning from UPS, the company wrote that safety is a top priority and that they strive to prepare and equip their drivers to deal with the elements. Here’s their response in full:

We’ve been in business for 111 years and over time have learned that with issues related to our people’s health and safety and wellness, awareness is the key. We raise awareness of issues surrounding the hot weather months through education. We have a proactive program called, “Cool Solutions,” that focuses on hydration along with nutrition and proper sleep BEFORE a heat event. We provide heat illness and injury prevention training to all management and drivers annually. We have morning meetings with every driver every day where we remind them of the signs of heat illness and the steps to take to avoid it and what to do if it happens. All UPS drivers know that coming to work well hydrated, with proper sleep and nutrition can impact performance in hot weather – preparation matters. They also know the signs of heat-related illness and the steps to take if it happens. They know these things through our daily and seasonal communications – we have similar communications for cold weather months in cold climates.

We provide water and ice in all facilities for employees and we have fans in many of our vehicles. As you may know, our delivery vehicles make frequent stops and have the entry doors open much of the day, making AC ineffective.

We monitor local area temperatures and remind our drivers every morning what the temps will be in their areas and to be aware of their own condition.

Obviously productivity matters because our customers expect their deliveries on time, but our people’s health and safety come first. It always comes before productivity.

FedEx also weighed in:

Safety is the highest priority at FedEx. While vehicle requirements may differ across our separate operating companies, reminders are routinely issued to emphasize the importance of closely monitoring working conditions and taking appropriate measures to ensure the safety of our team members and service providers.

Though solutions for keeping drivers comfortable and healthy in P&D vehicles may cost quite a bit more up front, the cost of haunting headlines and severe litigation may be even higher.

On a lighter note, all of this reminds me of a story I did about two years ago involving a post office in Florida that had recently received some new Ram ProMaster vans. The thoughtful and patient employee walked this ever-curious reporter through the van’s impressive features, which included air conditioning—a must-have in the Sunshine State where heat and humidity probably humble more of us than hurricanes.

There was something, though, that she couldn’t quite figure out. She wasn’t sure if she should be concerned about all this fluid collecting under the van in the parking lot.

I couldn’t help but chuckle a little.

“That’s right,” I said. “You’ve never had A/C in a van before.”

“No,” she said.

I explained that the fluid flowing out from under the van was actually water that had been dripping from the condensation line of the A/C’s evaporator. I assured her it was perfectly normal and nothing to worry about.

In thinking back on this, it was my local postman that had paved the way for that interview. I can recall talking to him while beads of sweat lit up his forehead. He kept a towel close by. We chatted about the new ProMaster and the post office’s hunt for the next delivery vehicle that will replace those very familiar, old and hot LLVs.