Postal Service cited in carrier’s heat-related death

The U.S. Postal Service willfully failed to protect its letter carriers during last summer’s intense heat, leading to the death of a mailman in Independence, according to a federal investigation.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed a $70,000 fine against the Postal Service for the July 24 death of John Watzlawick, who collapsed on his route after having asked the day before to be relieved because he was feeling ill from the heat.

“This tragedy underscores the need for employers to take proactive steps to keep workers safe in extreme heat,” Charles Adkins, OSHA’s regional administrator in Kansas City, said in a written statement. “If this employer had trained workers in recognizing the symptoms of heat stroke and taken precautions to ensure workers had access to water, rest and shade, this unfortunate incident may have been avoided.”

The Postal Service said it will contest the citation.

“The Postal Service places the safety and well-being of its employees as a top priority,” regional spokesman Richard Watkins said in a statement. “Tens of thousands of our city and rural letter carriers deliver the nation’s mail to every neighborhood in all types of weather and terrain, and the Postal Service strives to make sure they have the tools and training to do so safely.”

Dan Pittman, a national business agent for the National Association of Letter Carriers, said that the union expects the Postal Service to take corrective action. “They’ve got to put some policies and procedures in place to prevent this from happening again.”

Watzlawick, 57, of Blue Springs, was feeling sick in the triple-digit heat the day before he died and asked his superiors at the Harry S. Truman postal branch off Noland Road for permission to end his shift early. His request was denied, said his wife, Kay Watzlawick.

The next day, Watzlawick, a 28-year Postal Service veteran, collapsed just before 3 p.m. on his route on South Cottage Avenue. A passer-by saw him on the ground and called 911.

The Jackson County medical examiner ruled that Watzlawick died of hyperthermia, or heat-related illness. He had a body temperature of 108 degrees — 10 degrees above normal — when he was brought to the emergency room. The coroner said a heart attack probably was a secondary cause of death.

The area was under multiple heat advisories and warnings during last summer. The high temperature July 24 was 104 degrees downtown.

An OSHA statement said the Postal Service “did not have procedures in place to address worker concerns during times of excessive heat.” A citation for willful violation of safety standards means the employer showed disregard for the law or plain indifference.

At the time of the death, letter carriers were reminded to dress appropriately in the heat, to stay hydrated and to take breaks when they needed to, Watkins said.

Neither Pittman nor Watkins said they were aware of any other heat-related deaths of letter carriers, but Pittman said carriers are under increasing pressure as the Postal Service deals with financial trouble and branch managers find it more difficult to find substitutes for ailing carriers. Kay Watzlawick said her husband did not want to press the matter of his illness with management because he thought he would be harassed.

Watzlawick had been on vacation the week before he died, recuperating from a knee procedure. He left for work at his usually time of 7 a.m. on July 23. Besides his regular shift that day, he was told to work two hours of 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 had spoke to him Watzlawick and that “John really looked bad due to the heat,” according to Independence police.

Kay Watzlawick said that when her husband reached their home in Blue Springs about 6 p.m., he told her he had informed his supervisor he was ill from the heat and he had asked to be relieved. Watzlawick said he was told “no” because he had just been on vacation, she said.

Kay Watzlawick said her husband was unable to eat his lunch that day and didn’t eat much that night. He still wasn’t well the next morning. The family later learned that Watzlawick had barely touched his packed lunch that day.

Kay Watzlawick said her husband used to love his job but was looking forward to retiring in a few years.