Safety and OSHA News

Postal Service fined $70K for mail carrier’s heat-related death

It’ll be a while before we’ll experience summer-like heat again, but note this for next year: OSHA is issuing fines in connection with heat-related deaths of workers.

On July 24, John Watzlawick, a U.S. Postal Service mail carrier in Independence, MO, had just been back at work for a couple of days after a five-week absence. That day, the temperature and heat index rose above 100°F. The carrier worked out of a postal vehicle that didn’t have air conditioning.

Watzlawick told his supervisor just after 12 noon that he had symptoms of heat-induced illness. Because of his previous absence, Watzlawick didn’t have an opportunity to become acclimated to working in excessive heat.

The carrier continued working but collapsed about 2.5 hours later. The temperature was 102°F and the heat index was 104°F.

Watzlawick’s body temperature was measured at 108.7°F when he was taken to the hospital. He died as a result of his exposure to excessive heat.

OSHA issued one willful citation for $70,000 to the Postal Service for not protecting employees from exposure to the recognized hazard of working outside during periods of excessive heat.

Since OSHA doesn’t have a specific heat-illness standard, the agency used its General Duty Clause to issue the fine.

The Postal Service disagrees with OSHA’s findings and intends to contest the citation. Companies that receive OSHA fines have 15 business days to decide whether to contest them.

In the citation to the Postal Service, OSHA includes a list of “feasible and acceptable means of hazard abatement” for exposure to excessive heat:

  • acclimating employees returning to work after an extended absence to working in the heat
  • training supervisors in proper response to employees reporting heat-illness symptoms, including stopping work, getting to a cool place and providing help, evaluation and medical assistance
  • requiring trained supervisors to go into the field and conduct in-person evaluations
  • establishing work rules that encourage employees to seek assistance when they experience heat-illness symptoms, and
  • establishing a heat stress management program.

OSHA’s website defines risk levels for excessive heat using the heat index:

  • less than 91°F, lower risk, basic heat and safety planning
  • 91° to 103°, moderate risk, implement precautions and heighten awareness
  • 103° to 115°, high risk, additional precautions to protect workers, and
  • greater than 115°, very high to extreme risk, triggers even more aggressive protective measures.
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