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Workers Who Toil in Extreme Temperatures Would Get Relief Under State Bill

A measure introduced by state lawmakers aims to address the conditions that led to heat-related illnesses among UPS delivery truck drivers last summer.

February 14, 2023 Claudia Irizarry Aponte and Samantha Maldonado, The City
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A proposed law would require New York employers to protect truck drivers as well as construction, agriculture, landscaping and food service workers in extreme temperatures — including providing them with drinking water, rest breaks, air-conditioning and shaded rest areas during heat waves.

The bill, introduced by state Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Queens) and Assemblymember Latoya Joyner (D-The Bronx), also seeks to protect workers from extreme cold weather events, such as the deadly Christmas Day blizzard in Buffalo this winter.

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The bill was partly inspired by the plight of UPS truck drivers during last summer’s punishing heat wave. About a half dozen drivers in the New York area experienced heat-related illness on the job during a week of temperatures that soared past 90 degrees last July, with some requiring emergency care.

The state Department of Labor would be in charge of enforcing the law. Employers could face fines up to $10,000 for failing to comply.

UPS workers say delivery truck interiors, which are not air-conditioned, can register temperatures above 100 degrees during the summer.

Chris Cappadonna, a UPS driver whose route runs through Mill Basin, Brooklyn, sought emergency care for heat exhaustion last summer after making more than 170 stops during a shift as temperatures neared 100 degrees in his truck.

“When it’s cold, it sucks, but I don’t think you’re really in any danger of passing out or having, like, a stroke or a heart attack or anything,” Cappadonna said. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, you’re still freezing your ass off — but [the heat] is definitely worse for sure.”

He welcomed lawmakers’ efforts to mandate air conditioning and mandatory paid rests on the job. “It makes us safer, and it’s also going to make us more productive in the end because, you know, we’re not going to be working until we’re killing ourselves,” he said.

A spokesperson for UPS, Matthew O’Connor, told THE CITY: “We are reviewing the proposal.”

He added: “Safety is number one priority for our people. The earth is heating up, and that puts an uncomfortable situation on our employees in the height of the summer. We are not waiting for legislation or for the bargaining table. We’ve already kicked off a total revamp of our safety program, and will be bringing in new technology, hydration, cooling systems and a whole lot more to address heat this year.”

Though the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) demands employers provide workplaces free from hazards that could likely cause physical harm or death, there is nothing binding employers to take proactive measures to prevent heat- or cold-related death or illness.

A rule-making process to create an enforceable federal workplace heat safety standard has been ongoing since October 2021. That proposed standard does not address cold.

“The federal law doesn’t exist,” said Ramos, the state senator, in an interview. “What we’re doing is taking action at the state level, because unfortunately, climate change has produced extreme temperatures in both directions.”

Extreme heat, in particular, can be deadly. Scientists predict heat waves that will be hotter, longer, and more frequent as a result of climate change.

Extreme Measures

Under the proposed bill, employers would be on the hook to provide certain measures to protect workers when the temperatures in the workplace hit 80 degrees or dip below 60 degrees.

More than half the days in a year have average temperatures below 60 degrees in New York City, according to an analysis by THE CITY of two decades of National Weather Service data. If the bill were to be passed as written, it could potentially have wide-ranging effects for workers in agriculture, construction, delivery and other jobs that are mostly outdoors year-round.

While the legislation would require employers to display a thermometer so that employees can observe temperatures, it does not specify how that would apply to indoor-only conditions, like hot restaurant kitchens, or workplaces that are largely outdoors, as for delivery workers.

Construction workers enjoy a break in Lower Manhattan, May 17, 2022.
Construction workers enjoy a break in the shade in Lower Manhattan, May 17, 2022. | Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

In the heat, employers would have to provide a quart of drinkable water per hour, 10-minute breaks every two hours in the shade or a cool break room, and protective equipment such as hats, sunscreen, fans, and sweat-wicking clothes.

In the cold, employers would be required to provide breaks in warmer conditions as well as accessories that include hats and gloves.

In either extreme, new or returning workers would be entitled to acclimate to the temperatures over a two-week period, starting at 20% of a normal shift on the first day.

The measures align with health recommendations for keeping people safe in extreme weather, including OSHA’s guidance.

“This is a really great bill and these protections are really needed,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a worker safety policy consultant and fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. “Preventing these kinds of injuries [or] illnesses from heat and from extreme cold are just common sense, and none of this is onerous.”

Employers would also be required to write a plan on how to mitigate temperature-related stress, which they’d have to train employees how to recognize and manage, using a curriculum the state would create.

The bill would apply to workers whether they work indoors and whether they are year-round or seasonal employees, day laborers or independent contractors — such as app-based food delivery workers.

Industry Pushback

Employers and trade groups may resist inclusion of independent contractors under the bill. They also may push back on some of the finer points in Ramos’ proposed legislation — such as trigger points for extreme temperatures, and the acclimation requirements. That’s according to one corporate attorney, who notes that employers are already challenging the proposed federal temperature thresholds.

Companies want to make such regulations “more feasible, both economically feasible and technologically feasible, so as to continue to be productive, efficient and profitable,” said James Sullivan, an attorney in Washington and the former chairman of OSHA.

Workplace safety advocates who assisted efforts to write the bill said the 80-degree threshold for heat was selected, in part, to help simplify matters for workers who may be exposed to other stressors, such as direct sunlight and humidity.

“What we looked at is, at what point with direct exposure to the sun can workers start to experience heat illness?” Charlene Obernauer, the executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, told THE CITY.

Those trigger points also follow models in other states.

California’s heat illness prevention standard, which covers outdoor workers only and was issued in 2005, reflects an 80-degree threshold, as well as “high-heat procedures” that must be implemented when the mercury hits 95 degrees. So, too, do Colorado’s heat protections for farmworkers.

Oregon’s regulation, implemented in 2022 and for workers who toil inside and out, also kicks in at 80 degrees. Rest breaks become longer and more frequent as the temperature rises.

For UPS drivers like Cappadonna, the proposal builds on efforts to turn up the heat on their employer ahead of a potential nationwide strike against the company this summer, when the International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ contract covering 350,000 UPS truck drivers and package handlers nationwide is set to expire.

Workers from Teamsters Local 804, which represents UPS workers in the New York area, have called for the company to provide trucks with air conditioning as part of their bargaining demands, said Vincent Perrone, the president of the local.

“We’ve had members that have suffered heat related injuries,” Perrone said. “It’s the time to fix it — and these companies can do it.”

This story was updated on Feb. 10, 2023, to add comment from a UPS spokesperson.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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