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Agricultural workers, delivery drivers, and prison inmates die during record heat waves | Lawmakers and businesses oppose heat illness regulations
Climate change is causing the Earth's temperature to rise, which is leading to more deadly heat waves across the globe. According to the World Meteorological Organization, this July is the hottest month on record, with 21 of the first 23 days of July hotter than any previous days in the database. High temperatures in the southern United States have been unrelenting: El Paso, Texas, saw a 44-day streak over 100 degrees. Phoenix, Arizona, experienced a 31-day streak of days over 110 degrees, breaking the previous 18-day record. Meanwhile, the ocean water in Florida is 100 degrees, as hot as a hot tub, causing catastrophic damage to coral reefs and other marine life.
The effects of heat waves are mostly felt by lower-income people who cannot afford air conditioning and are often forced to work in extreme temperatures in order to keep their jobs. Lower-income populations currently face a 40% higher exposure to heat waves than people with higher incomes, one study found, with their vulnerability only predicted to increase in coming decades.
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In the United States, people who work outdoors—like agricultural workers and delivery drivers—are in the most danger from extreme heat and lack federal protections. California, Oregon, Colorado, and Washington are the only states with mandated heat regulations. However, these only apply to some workers. In Washington, for example, employers are required to provide mandatory cool-down periods at temperatures of 90+ degrees but only if the worksite is outdoors. Employees inside a vehicle are not covered by the rule as long as it is equipped with fans or windows that open.
Business groups and lobbyists have opposed efforts to create heat protection rules at the state and federal level, claiming that such regulations place oppressing “burdens” on employers. Lobbying groups associated with the agricultural and construction fields are currently fighting against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) proposed federal heat protection rule:
The powerful American Farm Bureau Federation has objected to the proposal. “Considering the variances in agricultural work and climate, AFBF questions whether the department can develop additional heat illness regulations without imposing new, onerous burdens on farmers and ranchers that will lead to economic losses,” it said in its comments on the rule.
The group has a long history of denying science around the climate crisis and has teamed up with fossil fuel interests in fights over climate policies.
The Construction Industry Safety Coalition (CISC) said while it “appreciates Osha’s rule-making in this area”, its members have “significant concerns with any regulatory approach that imposes complicated requirements on contractors and requirements that are triggered by threshold temperatures that are common in wide swaths of the country for much of the year”.
The National Demolition Association, a construction business group, said in its opposition “issues of heat exposure and the means to address it on the variety of construction worksites across the country are extremely complex”. The proposed rule “essentially dictates how and what should be included in an Osha standard for heat exposure, [and] does not account for the complexities of the issue”.
In Florida, the state Chamber of Commerce bragged about defeating a bill that would require employers in outdoor industries to provide workers with regular breaks, shade, and water when the heat index exceeds 90 degrees. Meanwhile, in Texas, the legislature passed a measure that nullifies current, and bans future, local ordinances mandating water breaks for outdoor workers. Not even two weeks after Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed the bill into law, nearly the entire state saw heat indexes rise over 100 degrees.
Just weeks ago, United State Postal Service (USPS) carrier Eugene Gates Jr. died while delivering mail in the 115-degree heat in Dallas, Texas. At 66 years old, Gates worked for USPS for nearly 40 years. Months before his death, Gates was disciplined for stopping too many times on his route:
Eugene Gates Jr., was disciplined on May 2 for a "stationary event," according to the National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 132 President Kimetra Lewis. A stationary event is when a letter carrier's scanner reads as idle on a tracker. In these instances, carriers are questioned about inefficiencies in their performance and potentially penalized for stopping along their route… The letter says an investigative review was conducted on May 11, notes that Gates' stationary event was "in violation of postal rules and regulations," and warns that "future deficiencies will result in more severe disciplinary actions, including removal from the Postal Service."
OSHA has issued more than $1.3 million in fines against the Postal Service for heat hazards in eight years, covering the time that John Watzlawick, a postal veteran of 28 years, died after delivering mail during a Missouri heatwave and when Peggy Frank, a mail carrier from California, was found dead “in her non-air-conditioned mail truck” during 115-degree temperatures.
An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity last year found that the Postal Service had exposed about 900 workers to heat hazards since 2012, leading to muscle cramps, vomiting and loss of consciousness. Close to 100 workers had been hospitalized for heat-related illnesses since 2015, the site reported. Because the hospitalizations are self-reported by employers, the full tally over that span is likely higher and wouldn’t reflect the times when workers got sick but didn’t end up in the hospital.
According to the same report, approximately 70% of USPS delivery trucks do not have air conditioning. Plans to replace its fleet have been delayed many times, pushing the expected deployment date for new, air-conditioned trucks, back to mid-2024. It is unclear how quickly the aging vehicles can be replaced and if areas prone to extreme heat will be prioritized.
Other delivery companies likewise fail to protect employees from high temperatures. Last year, 24-year-old UPS driver Esteban Chavez collapsed and died from heatstroke while delivering packages in Pasadena, California. In 2022, 23-year-old Jose Cruz Rodriguez, Jr., died from a “heat-related illness” after his shift delivering packages in Waco, Texas.
[Attorney Rod] Tanner said the trucks are not air conditioned, and temperatures in the cargo holds can reach 150 degrees in the Texas heat…“As a package car driver for UPS, he was overcome by heat exhaustion during the course of delivering packages, that day he notified his supervisor what he was burning up by text message and that he was very ill, the supervisor, by all reports, informed him that if he turned his package car in early that day, he would be fired by UPS,” said Tanner.
Under a tentative agreement negotiated by the Teamsters, representing 340,000 UPS employees, the company will begin equipping all newly purchased delivery vehicles with air conditioning. The requirement only applies to trucks bought after 2024, however; trucks currently in use will not have air conditioning and it is unclear when UPS intends to replace them.
Amazon is one of the only shipping services to include air conditioning in its vans, but drivers are required to turn off the vehicle at every stop, limiting its usefulness.
Farmworkers play a vital role in our food supply, performing backbreaking, repetitive labor in the hottest of summer temperatures. According to the National Institutes of Health, agricultural workers are at least 35 times more likely to die of heat than other workers.
Last month, 29-year-old Efraín López García died from heat-related illness while working on a farm in Homestead, Florida. His death came days after OSHA fined a different Florida farm for the death of a 28-year-old worker:
The next day, while many enjoyed the New Years’ Day holiday, the newly arrived worker was placing wooden stakes in the ground to support bell pepper plants at C.W. Hendrix Farms. Struggling to keep pace with more experienced farmworkers, he complained of fatigue and leg pain as the area’s heat index neared 90 degrees. Sometime later, co-workers found him unresponsive in a shallow drainage ditch. Like several co-workers, he experienced symptoms related to heat illness…
“The first day of 2023 was this young worker’s last because his employer failed to take simple steps to protect him from heat exposure, a known and dangerous hazard,” said OSHA Area Office Director Condell Eastmond in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “Had Rafael Barajas made sure workers were given time to get used to working in high temperatures and provided them with water, shade and rest the worker might not have lost his life.”
Dario Mendoza, a 26-year-old father of two young children, died working on a Yuma, Arizona, farm last month when temperatures reached 116 degrees. Authorities are investigating but the state does not have regulations in place to protect workers.
One of the most overlooked populations during extreme weather events are people in prison. At least 44 states, including those with the most brutal summers, do not have air conditioning in all of their prisons. In Texas, just 30% of inmate units are fully air-conditioned. Only four of Alabama's 26 state correctional facilities have air conditioning in all dormitories and 24% of Florida’s state-run prison housing units are air-conditioned.
After several young people escaped from a youth detention center in Louisiana last year, the state moved dozens of incarcerated teens to Angola, a notorious former slave plantation converted to a maximum-security prison for adults. According to a recent lawsuit, the children are forced to suffer in their windowless cells nearly 24 hours a day in temperatures as high as 136 degrees:
As detailed above, youth spend entire days and many hours locked in cells that are not air conditioned, and their very architecture puts youth at substantial risk of serious harm. As shown in the photographs in evidence at the September hearing, the cells are windowless, and have no ventilation other than a small vent close to the ceiling of the unit…As of July 11, the youth had been on lockdown in their cells since July 5, and had only been allowed out of their cells for showers for eight minutes per day, and for two hours outside on July 10. As noted in the chart, the heat index for each of those days was well into the triple digits. There is only one fan on each corridor that often breaks or does not work when the power goes out, and it is difficult for the youth to sleep.
Meanwhile, at least 32 people died in Texas prisons during the month of June, when outdoor temperatures reached over 100 degrees in many parts of the state. According to an investigation by the Texas Tribune, at least nine of the incarcerated people died of reported heart attacks in cells without air conditioning. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has not reported an official heat-related death since 2012.
But heat-caused deaths are often undercounted and misclassified, according to medical experts, and an abundance of studies link an increase in fatal heart failures to extreme heat. Often, it’s impossible to know if a heart attack or any other fatal event was caused by heat stroke unless the body temperature is measured at the time.
TDCJ has not said if it checks the temperatures of prisoners in medical distress during heat waves.
In addition to misclassifying deaths, some prisons cover up high indoor temperatures by falsifying records:
During that week, the Arizona State Prison Complex-Douglas in the southeast region of the state recorded temperatures up to 119 degrees in some units. At the Safford prison, southeast of Phoenix, temperatures inside the medical units hit 110 degrees…But some prison staffers at Perryville, the women’s facility in the Phoenix metro area, nonetheless allegedly filled out logs days in advance that charted reasonable temperatures:
At other facilities—including the state prison in Phoenix, which is designated as a mental-health facility for people on psychotropic medications—temperatures didn’t get logged at all.
There’s evidence to suggest that ADC staff are fabricating some of the records that they’re handing over to the court, Fathi said. On August 25, lawyers for the Department of Corrections emailed him temperature logs from the Perryville prison that included a set of readings for August 26 to 31—in other words, six days into the future.
The logs also included temperatures that were lower than reported elsewhere in the state.
The biggest obstacle to installing air conditioning in prisons—other than callous indifference—is money. Efforts to fund air conditioning in Texas prisons failed in 2019 after TDCJ officials provided the legislature with a $1 billion price tag:
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has put a hefty $1 billion price tag on the proposed installation of air conditioning in all of its uncooled prisons. But some lawmakers eyed the cost with skepticism Thursday as the department has a history of greatly overestimating cooling costs…In the fiscal note tied to the bill, filed by state Rep. Terry Canales, TDCJ estimated it would cost $1 billion to install air conditioning in all of its uncooled prisons, and another $140 million each year for utilities and maintenance. But Canales, D-Edinburg, and at least one lawmaker on the House Corrections Committee doubted those numbers since the agency’s estimated air conditioning cost for one prison was slashed by more than 80 percent during a lengthy lawsuit that was settled last year.
“This is an exorbitant, disingenuous number that is used to scare away people such as yourselves to say this can't happen,” Canales said to committee members at the hearing Thursday. “Whoever came up with this number is ridiculous.”
Yet, the same officials approved a 50% increase in the price of bottled water, from $4.80 per case (24 bottles) to $7.20 per case, in Texas prisons during the peak of 2023’s heat wave. TDCJ does not pay incarcerated people for labor inside the facility, leaving inmates to rely on family for money for bottled water or risk drinking potentially unsafe tap water.
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