The death of UPS driver Chris Begley, 57, who collapsed in August while making a delivery in 103-degree Texas heat, was no isolated incident.
Monitoring co-workers for signs of heat exhaustion has become a routine feature of the job, says fellow driver Seth Pacic, a shop steward in Begley’s union, Teamsters Local 767.
Pacic has learned to discern over the phone when a co-worker needs to find air conditioning ASAP—and when they’re deteriorating so badly that he should call paramedics and brave management’s wrath.
The problem is that managers are always trying to speed workers up, reluctant to call an ambulance because they report those numbers to higher-up management.
When a supervisor reached Begley, they offered him medical attention—but he refused it, so they took him home. “Therein lies one of the biggest problems: these supervisors aren’t trained in what to do about heat,” Pacic said.
“You can’t trust people when they say they’re ok. Because of the nature of heat exhaustion, your mental acuity is first thing to go. You get really foggy-minded.
“People get single-minded on trying to get home and get into the AC; they almost get fixated. That can be really dangerous if they push through, trying to get done with their day—or a supervisor pushes them.”
Four days after Begley’s collapse, he took a turn for the worse. He was taken to a hospital and life-flighted to another, where he died of massive organ failure.
Pacic wonders if IV fluids right away could have saved Begley’s life. Pacic himself has overheated on the job three times, and says his recovery took two days when he got IV fluids—versus two weeks when he didn’t.
Last year management allowed another driver, Pacic’s friend, to drive himself home despite heatstroke so bad he was vomiting; he totaled his car and sustained a brain injury. Another UPS driver was already in the same ICU.
Pacic believes air conditioning in the delivery truck would have saved his friend. When you overheat you’re supposed to seek out a “cool zone,” like an air-conditioned library or McDonald’s. But those are few and far between in sprawling residential areas.
AC in the truck would mean “a rolling cool zone that follows you wherever you go.”
The year before that, a 23-year-old driver died outside a Waco facility after overheating and wandering in circles. He had never clocked out, but rather than go look for him, management apparently falsified his timecard to close out the shift. His worried mother eventually came looking.
After great fanfare and consulting with Gatorade and Nike, earlier this year UPS issued everyone cooling sleeves and hats.
“A Rolling Cool Zone”
But this summer the union finally won air conditioning in UPS delivery trucks—part of the contract deal reached a few weeks before Begley’s death.
UPS had saved only $185 per truck by declining to have it installed when it bought the vehicles in the first place, More Perfect Union reported. (A bigger cost over time is the fuel used running the AC.)
All new trucks will have AC; over the next five years that will be one-third of the delivery fleet. The hottest areas get priority for these new trucks—presumably including Texas, Southern California, and Arizona, where UPS heatstroke has made headlines.
Existing trucks will be retrofitted with fans, heat shields, and induction vents.
Pacic feels conflicted about this outcome. “I never expected them to negotiate AC at all,” he says. But a slow phase-in strikes him as a decision to let drivers keep dying for years to come.
His sense of what’s possible in bargaining has risen dramatically; five years ago, he supported a contract that contained not only no AC, but also a notorious concession to two-tier. Since then, like many other Teamsters, Pacic has gained confidence in the union’s reform movement and gotten involved in helping to build it, joining Teamsters for a Democratic Union.
If his attitude speaks for many, then the Teamster rank and file could be poised to enter a long-overdue phase: focusing on improving the actual, miserable conditions of work. And in the near term, with the contract settled, those struggles will play out on the shop floor.
“Let the Company Try”
These gruesome problems aren’t unique to UPS, unfortunately. Climate change is intensifying the heat hazards on many jobs, with Amazon and the Postal Service among the serious offenders.
Dallas letter carrier Eugene Gates, 66, collapsed on his walking route in June and died, after being disciplined for stopping too often to rest.
And another Teamster died on the job, of overheating, the same week as Begley: Tony Rufus, 48, in a Kroger grocery warehouse in Memphis.
Grocery warehouses do have an air conditioned section, where the produce (unlike workers) is carefully kept cool. But Rufus worked in the salvage dock, where trailers are unloaded; it’s like working in a tin can, a union leader told local news. Workers estimated the temperature in salvage that day was at least 108, 10 degrees hotter than outdoors.
Rufus’s union, Local 667, had been asking management for more breaks to go cool off in the produce section. Two 15s and a 30 aren’t enough when it’s that hot, and the workers are under speed-up pressure.
But the key is to stop asking management, says Los Angeles Kroger Teamster Frank Halstead, and start telling them. Workers in his warehouse have built a culture of collective safety—where if someone needs a cooling break, they take it, and the others will have their back.
“We keep an eye on everybody, try to make sure everyone’s hydrated,” he said. “I really don’t give a f— what the company says we can or cannot do. If someone shows signs of heat exhaustion, we’re stopping. Let the company try to discipline us afterwards.
“Because of that we don’t have an issue. Management does not push back on us, because they just know it’s not gonna happen. We have to keep each other safe; we can’t rely on management.”
This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on September 20, 2023. Republished with permission.
About the Author: Alexandra Bradbury is the editor of Labor Notes. Contact her by emailing email@example.com.