John Watzlawick was nearing the end of his regular mail route, but he was still facing a mandatory two hours of overtime after that.
It was a triple-digit afternoon in July, and the veteran letter carrier had been feeling sickly with the heat since the day before, when he had asked — and been refused — permission to end his shift early, according to his wife, Kay Watzlawick.
Then, between mail stops on South Cottage Avenue in Independence on July 24, Watzlawick went down.
The Jackson County medical examiner this week confirmed that Watzlawick died of hyperthermia, or heat-related illness. The death report said Watzlawick had a body temperature of 108 degrees when he was brought to the emergency room — 10 degrees above normal — and that an acute myocardial infarction, or heart attack, was probably a secondary cause of death.
Kay Watzlawick is angry that postal officials at the Harry S. Truman branch off Noland Road reportedly rebuffed her husband when he told them on July 23 that he was ill from the heat and did not think he could finish his route.
“I think he should have come home that Monday and stayed off Tuesday,” she said, adding that her husband did not want to press the matter with postal management because he thought he would be harassed or intimidated.
The Postal Service and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are investigating.
A postal spokesman said he could not discuss this specific case, but he said letter carriers are reminded to dress appropriately in the heat, to stay hydrated and to take breaks when they need to.
“We remind them their safety is paramount to delivering the mail, as important as that is,” said spokesman Richard Watkins.
He said that postal managers can try to find substitute carriers for ill employees but that the situation varies from postal station to station.
Watkins said he was unaware of any other heat-related death of a letter carrier in his 25 years with the Postal Service.
“It is a horrible circumstance for the Postal Service and, obviously, for Mr. Watzlawick’s family,” Watkins said.
Dan Pittman, national business agent for the National Association of Letter Carriers, said he also was not aware of any heat-related deaths of letter carriers in this four-state region during his 39 years with the Postal Service.
Pittman said the Postal Service’s troubled financial situation isn’t making things easier for employees and, with downsizing, branch managers are finding it more difficult to find substitute carriers.
“We are so understaffed right now our letter carriers are working ungodly hours,” he said.
Pittman said carriers are made of tough stuff, but if they have a health concern they need to put themselves first.
“If it concerns safety, you bring the mail back” to the station, he said. “You can’t just say, ‘Well, it’s too hot out there,’ because we work in all kinds of climates, including the dead of winter. But if it’s getting critical, take the mail back.”
Watzlawick, 57, had been on vacation from work the week before he died, recuperating from a medical procedure on his knee. He left for work at his normal time of 7 a.m. on Monday, July 23. In addition to his regular shift that day, he was told to work two hours overtime, a common occurrence in these days of short staffs, according to the letter carriers’ union.
The temperature exceeded 100 degrees that day. A man on Watzlawick’s route later told police he spoke to him briefly and that “John really looked bad due to the heat,” according to the Independence police report.
When Watzlawick reached his home in Blue Springs about 6 p.m., his wife said, he told her that he had informed his supervisor or manager that he was ill from the heat and that he had asked to be relieved. John told Kay he was told “no” because he had just been on vacation the previous week.
“I could tell he did not feel good,” Kay Watzlawick said. “My husband was a big man, and he came home and collapsed on a small couch. He never does that because it’s uncomfortable. He slept for quite a while.”
Kay Watzlawick said her husband had not been able to eat his lunch that day and didn’t eat much that night, either. He still wasn’t well the next morning.
“Before he kissed me goodbye on Tuesday morning he said he had had to choke his toast down,” Kay said.
The family later learned that John had barely touched his packed lunch that day.
A man driving on the 3500 block of South Cottage Avenue about 2:50 p.m. found Watzlawick lying unconscious by the side of the road and called 911. A police officer found Watzlawick on his side in the grass, “sweating profusely and unresponsive to voice commands.”
Kay got a call from someone at the Truman branch about 3:15 saying her husband was at Centerpoint Medical Center in Independence. “I think the heat got him,” she said the postal official told her.
As far as Kay knows, her husband did not ask management to be relieved from work that day. Watzlawick’s actions and conversations with supervisors on July 23 and 24 are the subject of the investigations by OSHA and postal officials, who interviewed managers at the Truman branch as well as other carriers there.
Watkins said the Postal Service will not have any further comment until the OSHA investigation is completed. Barb Theriot, area director for OSHA, said her agency’s investigation would take several weeks.
John Watzlawick spent 28 years working for the Postal Service and the last dozen or so on his Independence route. His wife said he used to love his job but that he was looking forward to retiring in a couple of years.
Kay Watzlawick urges people to be on the watch for their letter carriers who may be suffering from the heat and offer them a cool towel or a drink of water.
“I do not want somebody else to go through this,” she said.