United Parcel Service workers nationwide voted last month to ratify a new contract, adding safety protections against heat-related injuries and illnesses. The health provisions come after El Paso experienced a record-breaking heat wave this summer.

Among pay raises and other provisions for UPS workers, various types of vehicles purchased from Jan. 1, 2024 onward will come with air conditioning, according to the contract. UPS will also equip new vehicles and retrofit existing vehicles with air induction vent scoops, as well as exhaust heat shields to reduce the amount of heat transferred to the cargo floor. UPS has already begun installing fans in the cabs of package cars, which is also stipulated in the contract.

The company is prioritizing these measures in the hottest U.S. regions, which include El Paso. There are around 700 UPS employees in El Paso and most of them pay union dues, according to the last quarterly roster, said Teamster Victor James.

El Pasoans endured 44 consecutive days above 100 degrees in June and July, and July was the hottest month ever recorded in El Paso by nearly 3 degrees. Over Labor Day weekend, El Paso broke its record for most days above 100 degrees in a year.

The climate crisis, driven by human activities that emit greenhouse gas emissions, has made severe heat waves like the ones this summer more likely to occur, say scientists from the World 

Weather Attribution. The organization uses climate models to understand how climate change influences the intensity and likelihood of extreme weather events.

In June, a U.S. Postal Service carrier collapsed and died on his route in Dallas, on a day that reached 115 degrees. That same month a 24-year-old UPS driver collapsed and died in his truck from a possible heatstroke in southern California. Last summer in Arizona, a door camera captured video of a UPS driver collapsing on a resident’s front porch while dropping off a package.

Under the general duty clause of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, each individual employer has the responsibility to abate heat-related hazards. OSHA has not set federal standards for heat safety, but California, Minnesota and Washington have set state standards for heat exposure. 

A UPS worker loads packages into the back of a truck, whose translucent roof provides light but also transmits heat, raising the interior temperature. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

James, who’s worked at UPS in El Paso for more than 20 years, said it was critical to put health and safety measures in a legally-binding contract, rather than just conversations, so workers can hold UPS to its promises. James represents El Paso businesses for Teamsters Local 745.

In the summer he hears from UPS workers who get nausea or diarrhea. People hired in the summer often aren’t used to working in the brutal heat, much less loading and unloading 53-foot trailers that are hotter inside than outside, he said.

“I think that led to turnover,” James said. “They couldn’t keep kids to work there, they couldn’t keep anybody to work there. A lot of guys start throwing up and they literally never come back the next day. They start throwing up because of the heat.”

In the new contract, UPS will now provide a graduated workload to new employees in their first five to seven working days to monitor for signs of heat illness. This gives new employees time to get acclimated to working in high temperatures, James said.

El Paso UPS workers strategize to beat the heat

On an early August day in the UPS warehouse, located in an industrial area next to the El Paso International Airport, the union’s health and safety committee led a group stretch to help prevent back and other injuries on the job.

A stream of workers grabbed cold water bottles from a cooler, as well as packets of electrolyte drink mixes. Others filled their reusable, insulated bottles and personal coolers with water and ice from the machine nearby. Some carried towels, which they can dip in icy water and place on their necks to cool off.

Signs for dehydration prevention were displayed throughout the meeting area. A digital screen showed a urine color chart, asking “Are you hydrated?” The health and safety committee set out fliers with suggested foods to help with hydration: tomato, cucumber, strawberry, watermelon – fruits made up of more than 90% water. A marker board lists out the symptoms of dehydration, which include dizziness and confusion, rapid heart rate, rapid breathing and fatigue.

UPS drivers line up to fill water jugs and coolers with ice before setting out on their routes from a distribution facility in East El Paso. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

UPS workers fill up personal coolers with ice and water at the start of their shift.

UPS driver John Ray Martinez said he joined the safety committee because he felt it was important to have more people who care about the conditions of the warehouse and drivers. Workers pride themselves on how fast they complete assignments and rookie drivers can be susceptible to pressure, either self-imposed or from management, to work quicker, he said.

“Sometimes things do get hectic and the company will push for production, and safety gets put on the backburner when no one’s watching,” Martinez said. “I try to tell the young guys, ‘Don’t feel pressured. First things first, you got to take care of yourself. Your last stop is your home.’”

Martinez said he tells workers to not feel guilt if they don’t feel well during their break and need to pull off their route to hydrate. And if they fear their supervisor will discipline them for taking more time to finish their route, it’s the job of union stewards like himself to support workers in those situations, he added.

Going on his ninth year as a driver, and 17th year working at UPS, Martinez said he’s never had to end a shift early because of heat injury or illness. But he’s heard his fair share of them. Sometimes drivers go home to recuperate while another worker finishes their route. Other drivers have to be taken to the hospital and receive IV fluids.

Some of the vehicles pulling out of the El Paso warehouse that day had one or two fans installed above the driver’s head. But workers voiced mixed opinions about the fans. One driver said the fans were better than nothing while another described the fans as a blow dryer, circulating hot air at his head. Another driver wished the fans could have been attached to the dashboard rather than the burning hot, overhead metal strip.

UPS delivery driver John Ray Martinez enters the cargo area of his truck with an outgoing package as he works his route in East El Paso on August 15. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Drivers aren’t the only ones getting fans. The new UPS contract allocates 18,000 more fans to warehouses nationwide to improve air circulation throughout the buildings.

Kristine Velasquez, a UPS warehouse worker in El Paso, said entering the building can feel like opening an oven door. In the hottest time of the year, Velasquez goes through at least one canteen of water every hour.

Heat injuries are likely an undercount

OSHA notes that heat deaths may be underreported because the cause of death is often listed as a heart attack, when the actual cause was exposure to heat-related hazard.

Since 2015, at least 270 UPS and USPS drivers nationwide have suffered illness or been hospitalized from heat exposure, The New York Times reported. But Teamsters said heat-related injuries, illnesses and deaths among drivers are severely underreported.

Stroke, exhaustion and cramps are some of the common heat-related injuries. A severe case, such as heat stroke, is a medical emergency that requires a hospital visit. A person suffering from heat stroke has a body temperature of 103 degrees or higher and can lose consciousness.

Many workers do not file an injury report, James said. It’s common for him to hear about supervisors who pressure a worker to get a ride home rather than to the hospital to avoid an injury report, he said. Sometimes a supervisor may claim a worker’s heat injury started before they came to work, therefore it’s not a work-related injury, James added.

“While I cannot speculate on isolated allegations … the safety and well-being of every UPSer is our top priority,” UPS spokesperson Becky Biciolis-Pace told El Paso Matters. “We never want an employee to work in an unsafe manner.”

Signs posted in a UPS distribution center remind workers to stay hydrated. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The Texas Division of Workers’ Compensation oversees the administrative and dispute resolution process for workers who get injured or ill on the job and are covered under their employer’s workers’ compensation insurance policy. 

El Paso Matters requested the number of workers’ compensation claims for UPS workers in Texas who experienced heat prostration – overheating of the body because of extreme weather conditions – in the last decade. But to maintain worker confidentiality, the division does not release data for injury and illness categories with less than five reportable claims.

The division only provides a summary of lost workday claims for occurrences when an employee dies, misses at least one day of work from injury, or has an occupational disease or illness.

A heat stroke may not be a reportable “occupational disease” because as a one-time event it’s likely considered an injury, not a disease or illness, explained Kate Sidora, a spokesperson for the Texas Division of Workers’ Compensation. If a UPS driver is hospitalized or sent home early for heat injury, but able to make the next scheduled shift, that may not be considered a reportable claim because they did not miss at least one day away from work, Sidora added.

Concern for heat safety can vary by supervisor, UPS workers told El Paso Matters. Velasquez has worked for UPS for five years as a part-time package loader and unloader. Her supervisors monitor them for potential heat exhaustion. If someone looks sluggish and overheated, her supervisors will encourage them to drink water and cool down in their office where there’s air conditioning, Velasquez said.

“Yes, I’m there to have a job but my overall health comes first,” Velasquez said. “If I feel I need to stop, I’m going to stop. … There are a couple supervisors who watch out for us and check in on us. I can’t say that for everyone else.”

Committee looks to improve UPS heat safety technology

While the June and July heat waves shattered temperature records around the world, punishing heat waves are more likely to get worse, not better, scientists warn. The burning of fossil fuels releases greenhouse gas emissions, which push temperatures up, which create a greater demand for fossil fuels to power cooling technology, such as air conditioning.

Large fans were recently added to a UPS distribution center in East El Paso, where temperatures tend to be very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

In the United States, ranked second in current greenhouse gas emissions after China, cities across the country have adopted climate action plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But in El Paso’s May election, which saw voter turnout of less than 8%, voters blocked Proposition K, a climate charter that would have established a goal of 80% renewable energy by 2030 among other goals. Amanecer People’s Project, a group of climate activists then known as Sunrise El Paso, led the local campaign, but were outspent by opponents of the climate charter, which included El Paso Electric, El Paso Chamber of Commerce, and fossil fuel interest groups.

Nicole Alderete-Ferrini, head of the city’s Office of Climate and Sustainability, now has the challenge of building consensus among Prop K supporters and opponents as she crafts a climate action plan for El Paso.

With people working in increasingly hotter conditions, the UPS contract forms a new committee to look into heat mitigation solutions in its vehicles. The committee, made up of workers, will identify methods of venting and insulating cargo compartments for the company to evaluate and field test.

The cargo floors are made of metal, so insulation beneath the floor could potentially reduce heat from rising up, James suggested. Older vehicles still have clear roofs in the cargo area so that workers can see where they’re working, but the back can feel like a “mobile sauna,” said one driver.

UPS drivers, with ice chests and water bottles prepared, listen to announcements before starting their morning routes. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Biciolis-Pace pointed to actions the company is already taking, such as equipping drivers with cooling hats and sleeves.

“We’re taking a scientific approach to help our drivers work safely in the heat,” Biciolis-Pace wrote in an email. “We have worked with top experts in heat safety to study our working conditions and further improve our trainings and protocols to help our employees work safely – especially on hot days.”

UPS workers voted overwhelmingly to approve the five-year contract, following contentious negotiations that almost led to a nationwide strike at the end of July. Velasquez hopes the contract will bring gains in worker safety to other companies – whether it’s FedEx, USPS or Amazon.

“Hopefully what’s happening with us kinda sets a stepping stone for other companies in this type of industry to take care of their workers, or even for workers to stand up for what they need in their jobs as well,” Velasquez said.

Priscilla Totiyapungprasert is a health reporter at El Paso Matters and Report for America corp member. She previously covered food and environment at The Arizona Republic. You can follow her on social...