OSHA: Heat exhaustion investigations often involve delivery drivers

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It’s been nearly two weeks since the death of USPS mail truck driver Peggy Frank and still there’s been no official word on the cause of her death.

Frank, 63, a mother and grandmother, had been close to retirement following 28 years of service at the Woodland Hills Post Office in Los Angeles when she was found dead in her truck on July 6 when the temperature reached a record-breaking 117 degrees.

Frank’s family believes that the heat killed her. She had suffered heat stroke before. Though the autopsy is finished, the Los Angeles County Coroner has yet to release the results.

Her death prompted a concerned response from an HWT reader and retired Army engineer who, while stationed in the Middle East, took on some of the hottest temperatures on Earth. We’ve posted Loren Russell’s comments below.

OSHA confirmed that they are investigating Frank’s death and that they have up to six months to finish their work. They will not be issuing a report. Instead, at the conclusion of their investigation, they may issue a citation, if warranted.

“OSHA does not issue reports,” an agency spokesperson told HWT. “The agency issues citations if violations of OSHA standards are found, or hazard alerts or letters to warn employers about the dangers of specific industry hazards and provide information on how to protect workers exposed to those safety and health hazards.”

Though OSHA may not issue detailed reports, on its website it does post brief descriptions of violations, including those related to heat exhaustion. Over a four-year period, from 2012 to 2016, USPS received two violations for heat exhaustion and two for heat-related deaths.

In an interview with HWT, OSHA told us that their “heat-related investigations often involve delivery workers.” We’ve printed that interview in its entirety below.

It’s our hope that drivers and support staff that work hard to get deliveries out across the country throughout the week will try their best to stay cool during these hot, summer months. That’s especially important for drivers who do not have air conditioning and may be required, as was reportedly the case for Frank, to keep their windows and doors closed for security reasons. Though the older Long Life Vehicles (LLVs) in the USPS fleet are not equipped with air conditioning, the post office’s wish list for its new daily mail trucks includes optional A/C.

OSHA Q&A

HWT: Does the summer heat pose a big concern for OSHA, especially as it relates to drivers who may work in vehicles with no A/C? If so, how does OSHA address its concerns?

OSHA: Eliminating heat-related illnesses and fatalities is a major area of concern, especially during summer months. Employers should take precautions before and during hot weather to ensure workers are protected from heat-related illnesses. OSHA has a long-standing outreach initiative to educate employers and workers about the risks of heat hazards, how to identify symptoms of heat illness, and effective ways to protect against these risks. The agency also responds to complaints of heat-related issues to provide employers with immediate corrective actions. On average, federal OSHA conducts about 175 heat-related inspections each year, including delivery or refuse work.   

HWT: Have complaints concerning exposure to weather-related heat increased over the past few years?

OSHA: The overall rate of complaints has not increased over the past few years, however, during periods when a particular area of the country has experienced an unusually sudden or prolonged heat wave, OSHA offices typically conduct higher numbers of investigations.

HWT: Are truck and van drivers more at risk for heat exhaustion over other industries? Please explain.

OSHA: Any employee who performs strenuous physical activities in hot conditions is at risk for suffering heat illnesses, such as heat stroke, heat exhaustion, or cramps. Employers are reminded to train employees and supervisors on the health effects, symptoms, and methods for preventing heat-induced illnesses. Employers must provide access to cool water for hydration, and implement a work/rest regimen to allow employees to become acclimatized to the heat.

HWT: Does OSHA periodically check the cab temperatures of trucks and other commercial vehicles during the summer months?

OSHA: OSHA’s heat-related investigations often involve delivery workers. Recording the temperature where the heat exposure occurred is a routine part of the investigation.

HWT: Is there a threshold temperature at which point OSHA recommends that a driver be removed from a cab?

OSHA: OSHA recognizes heat is a work-related hazard for many industries. Employers should protect affected workers by implementing heat stress prevention programs. It is important to establish a process to communicate heat alerts to, and check in on, employees who often work alone, such as couriers and delivery drivers.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) Heat Stress webpage offers employers recommendations to help reduce heat stress in the workplace or at the worksite. The National Weather Service issues heat advisories that can help employers identify potentially serious weather conditions so they may pre-warn at-risk workers.

HWT: Given the risk of heat-related injuries and death, does OSHA recommend that commercial vehicles be equipped with AC or fans?

OSHA: Employers are required to provide a workplace free of conditions or activities that cause, or are likely to cause, death or serious physical harm to employees when there is a feasible method to abate the hazard. This includes heat-related hazards. OSHA recommends a combination of water, rest and shade to prevent heat illness. Employers should provide cool drinking water near the work area. Employees working in hot temperatures should drink 1 cup (8 oz.) of water every 15–20 minutes. In addition, employers should implement a work/rest schedule and provide a cool area (e.g., air-conditioned or shaded) for workers to rest and recover.

Response from HWT reader Loren Russell

Upon reading the articles about Mrs. Frank’s death, there is one variable that continues to stand out to me.  The USPS continues to state that they have a program called Cool Solutions.  Reading the fine details though, you get the idea that all of the preventable steps revolve around the employee taking sole responsibility for themselves:  the employee needs to dress appropriately; the employee should hydrate; the employee should park in the shade; the employee should bring water and ice.  Absolutely nowhere in the article talks about ice, water, coolers and such being provided for the employees.

As a veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo, I can state with confidence that we were not allowed to utilize vehicles in extreme heat unless the air conditioning was present and functional!  And water, ice and coolers were provided to us to help us stay hydrated.  We were issued uniforms with exotic features and made of advanced materials to help us remain functioning in extreme heat.  I personally witnessed six days where temperatures exceeded 150 degrees Fahrenheit and we still did our jobs with no injuries.

I can understand the need to secure the mail; and I can understand the need to cut corners on such a huge fleet of vehicles in order to keep costs down.  But the last few years vehicle manufactures are including air conditioning in fleet vehicle packages to keep costs low.  If there was in fact no air conditioning in a vehicle registered in California, where temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees, then I would concede that the USPS is negligent in taking care of its core money maker: employees!