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HEAT AND HEALTH

UPS drivers are collapsing from heat exhaustion—and bringing it to the bargaining table

Photo of a UPS truck and logo in Los Angeles
Mike Blake
  • Sarah Todd
By Sarah Todd

Senior reporter, Quartz and Quartz at Work

Published

This June, a 24-year-old UPS driver named Estaben Chavez died while delivering packages on a hot day in the Los Angeles area. Chavez’s cause of death is still being investigated, but his family believes the underlying issue was heatstroke. “Those trucks are a hot box,” the young man’s father told Los Angeles news station KTLA.

UPS has said that it’s cooperating with investigators looking into Chavez’s death. He’s not the only UPS driver to die on the job: Last year, 23-year-old José Cruz Rodriguez died from what federal authorities later determined was a heat-related illness. And amidst record temperatures in many parts of the US this summer, more reports of UPS drivers hospitalized and collapsing on the clock continue to roll in, with some UPS drivers sharing photographs of the temperatures they experience inside their delivery trucks.

Spurred by Chavez’s death, the Teamsters union that represents 350,000 UPS workers across the US is now campaigning for better heat safety protections as a central tenet of upcoming negotiations with the $169-billion delivery company. The union’s current contract with UPS expires in July 2023.

The fight is emblematic of increasing concerns about how climate change will impact workers’ health and safety in coming years. The drivers’ hope is that by calling public attention to the issue of heat safety, they can bring about industry-wide protections for delivery workers, including Amazon contract drivers who aren’t represented by unions.

“As Teamsters, we set the standard in most of the industry,” says Anthony Rosario, an organizer at Teamsters Local 804, which represents UPS drivers in the New York City metropolitan area. Before he was employed by the Teamsters, Rosario worked for UPS for 28 years, including 20 years as a driver.

The union’s goal, Rosario says, is to set a bar so high for heat-safety issues “that these other companies are just going to have to match it if they want to stay competitive.”

How hot do UPS delivery trucks get?

As part of the campaign, Rosario has been asking UPS drivers across the country to submit photographs of the thermometers inside their trucks, which register temperatures anywhere from 116 degrees Fahrenheit at the low end to as high as 161 degrees. The following photos were provided to Quartz via Rosario.

C/o Anthony Rosario
C/o Anthony Rosario
C/o Anthony Rosario
C/o Anthony Rosario
C/o Anthony Rosario
C/o Anthony Rosario
C/o Anthony Rosario
C/o Anthony Rosario
C/o Anthony Rosario
C/o Anthony Rosario
C/o Anthony Rosario
C/o Anthony Rosario

One driver, located in Georgia, also submitted a photo that appears to show cookies baking on hot metal sheets in his cargo truck.

C/o Anthony Rosario

Asked what it feels like to be inside a UPS truck on a hot day, Brooklyn UPS driver Oscar Figueroa responded: “Have you ever seen a turkey in the back of the oven?”

The back of the vehicle where packages are stored is completely sealed, leading to broiling temperatures, he says. The front cabs of the trucks can pose problems too.

“There’s no ventilation in the front,” says Figueroa, who’s worked for UPS for 17 years.

“We have the windows open, but we’re sitting on plastic seats,” with the vehicle engine running right beneath them, Figueroa explains. The truck’s large windshields create a “greenhouse effect,” he says, with sun pouring through the glass.

Both the front and back of the trucks lack air-conditioning. UPS says that it provides fans to drivers upon request. Figueroa shared documentation of one such request, dated July 21st, from another driver at his Brooklyn center. The request was denied, with the technician in charge noting that the fan couldn’t be installed: “It’s a corporate decision.”

C/o Oscar Figueroa

In addition to dealing with potentially high temperatures in the trucks and outdoors, UPS drivers exert themselves lifting heavy packages and getting in and out of the vehicles to make deliveries. A 2021 memorandum from the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) notes that heat-related illnesses “can happen at almost any ambient temperature, especially in cases where workers perform moderate or higher physical activity, wear heavy or bulky clothing, or equipment.”

How does UPS address heat safety issues?

The Teamsters have called on UPS to take a number of measures to prevent heat-related illness and injuries, including putting fans in every truck (rather than doing so only upon request), offering more breathable uniforms, and “creating more full-time positions to give all employees more rest breaks on hot days,” according to a recent press release.

UPS spokesperson Matthew O’Connor tells Quartz that drivers’ health and safety is the company’s highest priority, noting that UPS spends more than $260 million each year on safety programs including those focused on heat issues. One such UPS program “focuses on educating employees about hydration along with nutrition and proper sleep before working in hotter temperatures,” O’Connor said via email, as well as training on heat illness and injury prevention.

UPS has designed the roof of its trucks’ cargo area to reduce heat, according to O’Connor, as well as installed ventilation systems aimed at increasing airflow. He said that UPS also provides water and ice for employees, along with cooling towels and uniforms with moisture-wicking fibers.

“We never want our employees to continue working to the point that they risk their health or work in an unsafe manner,” O’Connor said.

But Rosario says UPS could do more to protect drivers from the risks associated with high temperatures. He points to the company’s decision to spend resources installing security cameras in some delivery trucks even as workers say their health is being threatened by inadequate accommodations.

“Here you are putting cameras in our vehicles instead of giving them proper ventilation, instead of spending that money to give us air conditioning, instead of spending that money for our well-being as drivers who are out here on the road every day,” says Rosario.

“It’s profit over people, production over people,” he adds.

Why employers need to rethink productivity in the face of heat hazards

UPS drivers are far from the only people pressing employers to provide better heat protections on the job. This summer, US workers at companies ranging from Dollar General to Hooters and Jack in the Box have walked out on the job over high temperatures.

OSHA has also rolled out a new plan aimed at protecting workers from heat hazards. But worker advocates say that bureaucracy is slowing down the creation of much-needed federal rules on heat safety, which would better ensure employers’ compliance.

The number of worker deaths and hospitalizations tied to extreme temperatures is hard to track. Official reports sometimes list other conditions, like a heart attack, rather than the heatstroke that led to the illness or injury. At least 344 workers died from heat-related causes between 2011 and 2019, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. A recent report from the nonprofit advocacy group Public Citizen suggests the number of workers harmed by extreme temperatures is much higher. Extrapolating from available data on California workers’ compensation claims that showed rates of injuries and illness rise on hotter days, Public Citizen estimates the US has anywhere from 600 to 2,000 worker heat-related deaths each year along with 170,000 annual injuries.

The Public Citizen report says hydration and cooling systems are essential to heat safety in the workplace. It also recommends that companies adjust their productivity expectations on hot days for the sake of workers’ health.

Employers should allow workers to choose the appropriate pace for carrying out tasks so that they don’t overexert themselves, the report says, and encourage workers to take unscheduled breaks so they can rest and recover as needed. That’s similar in premise to the Teamsters’ requests.

For his part, Rosario says he suspects that productivity concerns are part of the reason UPS has thus far held off on installing better ventilation systems in delivery trucks.

“They feel like, ‘Well, if we put air conditioners and fans in the trucks, drivers are going to slow down because they’re looking to cool off,’” Rosario says. “Well, yeah—because we need to.”

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