Corporations Are Putting Workers’ Lives in Danger in a Deadly Heat Wave

Climate change means workers have to labor in increasingly dangerous heat during the summer months. Corporations are happy to put workers’ lives on the line — and the federal government isn’t doing enough to stop it.

A UPS worker returns to work after the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in New York City. (Noam Galai / Getty Images)

On July 19, the Ring camera at a home in Scottsdale, Arizona, captured video of a United Parcel Service (UPS) driver collapsing at the front door while delivering a package, apparently due to the heat. Temperatures that day reached 110 degrees, as is common for the area in the summer.

The homeowner, Brian Enriquez, shared the video publicly. UPS later issued a statement claiming that the driver was “fine”:

UPS drivers are trained to work outdoors and for the effects of hot weather. Our employee used his training to be aware of his situation and contact his manager for assistance, who immediately provided assistance. Our package delivery vehicles make frequent stops, making air conditioning ineffective.

These claims might come as a surprise to many drivers. On July 6, Esteban Chavez Jr, a twenty-four-year-old UPS delivery driver in Southern California, collapsed and died while delivering packages in the Pasadena area. Although the coroner had not declared a cause of death at the time Chavez’s story made the news, Chavez’s family believes that his death was related to heatstroke.

Heat has become a major safety issue across the country for drivers at UPS and other workers as climate change produces hotter and hotter summers.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that 2021 was the sixth hottest year since records started being kept in 1880; it also says the nine years from 2013 to 2021 were in the top ten hottest recorded. As the temperature climbs, so do heat-related worker deaths: federal data indicates that heat killed thirty workers a year on average from 2011 to 2014 but forty a year from 2015 to 2019.

Teamsters Local 804, representing UPS drivers in New York City, recently rallied to decry the dangerous conditions drivers deal with during the summer. Local 804 member Matt Leichenger wrote on Twitter, “Despite contract language that requires UPS to install fans in package cars, UPS Corporate is refusing to do so.”

At the same time as it refuses to install fans or air conditioning, UPS is seeking to install security cameras in trucks to monitor drivers while they work.

“Inside the truck, in the cargo area, that can get upwards of 120, 130 degrees. And these trucks — many of them don’t have fans, and none of them have air conditioning,” Leichenger told Fox 5 News. “Last year alone, I think they made $10 billion in profits. Rather than investing in cooling systems for inside the buildings and trucks, they’re actually putting money towards driver-facing cameras.”

UPS is of course not the only company for which employees are working in potentially lethal temperatures. During Amazon’s massive “Prime Day” sale on July 13, forty-two-year-old Rafael Reynaldo Mota Frias, a worker at the corporation’s fulfillment center in Carteret, New Jersey, died of a heart attack on the job.

The Daily Beast reported that Frias’s coworkers believed he was “overworked and overheated” in the warehouse, which lacks air conditioning in the main work area. (Temperatures reached a high of 92 degrees in Carteret that day.) One employee even filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) claiming that Frias had told managers he was too hot — on the very day he died.

Amazon Labor Union (ALU) leader Chris Smalls declared on Twitter that the union would also be filing an OSHA complaint about Frias’s death, and that the ALU will be attempting to organize the fulfillment center.

Excessive heat is also a complaint of workers at the Bessemer, Alabama, Amazon facility that the Retail, Warehouse and Department Store Union (RWDSU) has tried to organize.

“Heat is a consistent problem across Amazon, both in warehouses and on the road,” a worker at the DJE3 Amazon delivery station in Swedesboro, New Jersey told Jacobin. The worker asked for anonymity to avoid retaliation from his employer. He reported witnessing multiple incidents of workers collapsing from heatstroke in recent years, with Amazon agreeing to install additional fans or air conditioning only after the incidents and in response to worker organizing efforts.

Like UPS, Amazon has denied that there is anything dangerous about their working conditions, or that those conditions contributed to Frias’s death. The company is known for its high rates of injury and death among its workforce.

The sometimes-lethal summer temperatures that UPS and Amazon employees are working under has already taken a huge toll on workers more broadly. According to a Public Citizen report, “Heat exposure is responsible for 600-to-2,000 worker fatalities, annually, ranking it among the top three causes — and possibly the top cause — of occupational fatalities.” And the number of heat-related deaths is only likely to climb as summers get hotter.

OSHA has the authority to create rules that could protect workers from heat-related injuries and death but has dragged its feet on beginning to formulate them until last year. Worse still, it takes the agency more than seven years on average to come up with new safety standards and sometimes even longer. (A 2012 US Government Accountability Office report said, “Experts and agency officials cited increased procedural requirements, shifting priorities, and a rigorous standard of judicial review as contributing to lengthy time frames for developing and issuing standards.”)

That doesn’t mean OSHA is powerless. The Public Citizen report goes on to note that OSHA could issue

an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS). An ETS can be created and adopted in months and carries the same force as a permanent standard. . . . The agency should issue an emergency standard as soon as possible to address the crisis of the moment, and figure out how to deal with possible challenges to the standard’s duration or extension if they arise.

OSHA is part of the Department of Labor, so Joe Biden could simply direct the agency to create an emergency standard to protect workers now. He has not done so, reflecting a broader pattern of the administration’s refusal to take advantage of executive power to improve people’s lives, even as much of his agenda has languished in Congress. In the absence of federal intervention, the task will fall to workers at UPS, Amazon, and elsewhere to fight for protections for themselves.

Climate change doesn’t just mean rising sea levels and the mass extinction of entire species. It also means Amazon workers dying while stocking packages, UPS drivers keeling over during deliveries, and farmworkers expiring as they harvest your food. The president actually has the ability to do something to help workers endangered by extreme heat. He has no excuse not to.