‘It’s tough on your body’: bitter cold poses grave threat for US outdoor workers | US unions

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As millions of Americans around the country experienced the effects of a winter storm, thousands of workers in essential and emergency jobs had no choice but to work outdoors in blizzards and record low temperatures.

Over 200 million Americans were placed under winter weather alerts heading into Christmas weekend. Regions throughout the west and midwest were hit by record-breaking low temperatures. In the south, Florida experienced its coldest Christmas in decades. Hundreds of flights were canceled and thousands of Americans in hard-hit areas lost power.

With winter storm Elliott stretching 2,000 miles from the Great Lakes near Canada to the Rio Grande on the Mexico border, downing power lines, canceling flights and triggering a surge in delivery orders, there was no chance of cancellation for airport workers, cellphone tower climbing technicians, delivery drivers and others who found their workloads surging.

Inclement winter weather poses a lot of risks and increases workloads for cell tower climbers to maintain and conduct repairs, said Ryan Dupal, a tower foreman and member of Tower Climbers Union (TCU)/CWA.

“The physical stress it does to you and your mentality when you go on to a site in frigid temperatures … It doesn’t even have to be -6F out. If it’s 20F out, a few hundred feet in the air the temperature is a lot different, and the windchill is a huge factor,” said Dupal. “All of that is really tough. It’s tough on your body, your lungs. Your joints ache more. If there’s any bare skin, there is possible tissue damage, and you don’t even realize it because you’re so busy until you get down.”

He said there is significant pressure on workers to perform jobs through the worst weather, as they are not compensated for downtime if they don’t perform the work. Tower climbers are often away from home, staying in hotels near job sites, and employers will often find someone else to complete work on a tower in cases where a worker declines to work because of poor weather.

Having suffered through a summer of blistering heat, essential workers now face an even more dangerous foe in the cold. According to a CDC report, extreme cold is responsible for more than twice (63%) as many deaths as extreme heat (31%).

“There are a lot of companies out there that will force their guys to work in temperatures like today. The reality of it is, that’s very dangerous for your body. The job is dangerous enough as it is,” added Dupal. “When you go outside, and you can’t take a deep breath in without feeling like you can’t breathe, you can only imagine how it feels hundreds of feet in the air.”

Mikki Siegel de Hernandez of the CWA said the extreme temperatures highlighted issues like educating the workforce around job protections, rights of workers in refusing to work in dangerous conditions, and proper staffing.

“We push for policies that give workers the right to take breaks, or to get warm, to have the right kind of protection clothing provided by the employer, work schedules may come into play – all of those things are part of what needs to be done in order to have people be protected,” said Siegel de Hernandez.

“When the public is told to stay indoors, there are workers that have to be outdoors.But their lives are in danger, because they are on the road, they have to travel, they have to be in those conditions.”

Sean Orr, a UPS delivery driver and union steward with Teamsters in Chicago, has been working through subzero temperatures ahead of the Christmas holiday. He said during their morning huddle, employees were reminded they are essential workers and are expected to keep working through the inclement weather hitting the area, and only offered to come back to the delivery center to warm up briefly, then go back out and keep delivering.

As a steward, Orr said he has spoken with several co-workers who have lost feeling in their feet and hands, including one worker who had to be treated at a clinic for frostbite.

“All of them were told to keep working,” said Orr. “It’s the holidays, we want everybody to get their Christmas gifts. We love our jobs and what we do. We like getting to go out there and be Santa Claus, but not at the expense of our lives and livelihoods.”

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