Phoenix airport workers file safety complaints, citing brutal heat

Inside the sweltering airplane, Linda Ressler was sweating through her uniform.

It was mid-July, and Phoenix was enduring a record-breaking run of extreme heat. Ressler cleans airplanes on the overnight shift at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Over three nights, she recalled, her health deteriorated and she suffered headaches, nausea, disorientation and fatigue as she wiped down bathrooms and folded seat belts while temperatures approached 100 degrees, even at night.

Her supervisor told her she could leave in an ambulance, Ressler said, but she worried about the cost. After taking herself to the hospital and recovering at home, her employer, Prospect International Airport Services Corp., reprimanded her for missing work, she said.

“The heat is bad,” she said. “And the company, they shrug their shoulders.”

Ressler is one of 11 Prospect employees who made complaints against the company to the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health (ADOSH) about problems related to working in extreme heat without sufficient support. The complaints were outlined in a letter last month to the Arizona agency that was obtained by The Washington Post. Some of the employees discussed their concerns at an event at Sky Harbor Airport on Wednesday.

“As a result of working in extreme heat, workers have experienced heat exhaustion with symptoms such as dizziness, lightheadedness, swaying/loss of coordination, irritability, dehydration, and fainting,” the letter read. “Workers who have experienced pronounced episodes of heat illness have not received adequate medical attention on-site, and the employer has not facilitated treatment for all employee injuries at a medical facility in near proximity.”

Extreme temperatures have become more common across the country — and the world — but there are no national regulations to protect workers from heat, and only a handful of states have made such rules.

The Phoenix airport employer is an affiliated company of Chicago-based Prospect Airport Services, which has more than 10,000 employees and works at airports in 25 cities across the country, according to its website. At Sky Harbor Airport, their employees handle baggage, push wheelchairs for passengers, and clean airplanes for Delta, United, American and other airlines.

In a statement, the company said it is “committed to the safety of all its employees” and trains them on the importance of staying hydrated during extreme weather. Employees at Sky Harbor Airport have access to several refrigerated water coolers in an air-conditioned break room, the company said, and a five-gallon container of Gatorade is also made before the morning and night shifts.

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“Employees have access to the break room, the coolers, and drinking cups throughout the day and popsicles are also available to employees in the break room freezer. The popsicle supply is replenished nightly,” the statement read.

The company said its employees are allowed to stop and get water at any time during their shifts and that airline partners prohibit employees from working in an enclosed aircraft cabin if temperatures exceed 90 degrees.

“We recognize the work our employees do daily is difficult enough even in ideal weather,” the company statement read. “We truly appreciate their efforts and encourage them to engage with their supervisors and managers so that we can explore any other ways in which we can continue to support them during this challenging time.”

When asked about Ressler’s allegations, Prospect said it does not comment on employee matters but “does not discipline employees for time off taken in accordance with applicable law.”

American did not respond to a request for comment. United referred questions to Prospect.

ADOSH opened an inquiry into Prospect’s operations at Sky Harbor on July 24, following an anonymous tip. The agency, part of the Industrial Commission of Arizona, conducted an inspection of Prospect’s facilities and the case is still open, said Trevor Laky, an industrial commission spokesman.

The Aug. 24 letter to ADOSH head Jessie Atencio from the 11 Prospect employees complained about lack of access to potable water and failure to provide adequate medical care. The employees asked for ADOSH to conduct another on-site inspection of both daytime and nighttime shifts.

The Phoenix Aviation Department, which owns and operates Sky Harbor Airport, declined to comment about the complaints against Prospect.

Department spokesperson Tamra Ingersoll said in an earlier statement about the July heat wave that “the well-being of our employees and those of our tenants is the utmost importance to us year-round, but especially during the summer with the increased temperatures.”

Ingersoll said that during periods of extreme heat, the airport takes additional measures to protect employees, including asking them to take frequent breaks, encouraging them to stay hydrated and postponing noncritical outdoor work.

But several employees at Sky Harbor — those involved in the complaints against Prospect, as well as others — described punishing working conditions during a summer when there was a stretch of 31 straight days of the temperature exceeding 110 degrees. It was the hottest month ever observed for a U.S. city.

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One airline flight attendant said a two-hour delay on the Sky Harbor tarmac this summer during temperatures above 110 degrees made the plane feel like a “rotisserie oven.” He said he watched his sweating colleague put her face in a refrigerated beverage cart to cool off. A ramp agent said vehicles and equipment used to move around aircraft and load luggage get so hot they can burn employees.

“Working in the heat is absolutely miserable,” one Delta Air Lines aircraft loading agent at Sky Harbor Airport said in early August, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation from the company. “We had somebody throw up last week. We had somebody pass out.”

The employee, a supervisor, said he drinks five to six gallons of water during his 12-hour shift in an attempt to stay hydrated. On one day in late July, he said, he was outside continuously for six hours and had to stop working because “I couldn’t take it anymore.”

“I had to say something, and they didn’t like what I had to say but I had to stop,” the employee said. “I wasn’t going to put my team in what I felt, literally at that point, danger.”

Delta said in a statement that its employees can call a “safety time out” when they deem situations unsafe, and that provides its airport employees in Phoenix with insulated water bottles, cooling fans, misters, air-conditioned break rooms and cold water, among other support. The company is not aware of anyone fainting during the time frame described by the employee. One person vomited, the company said, an employee who was “returning from an illness” and declined Delta’s offer for emergency medical care or the chance to go home.

Prospect employees say they regularly endure uncomfortably hot temperatures while pushing passengers who need wheelchairs outside or in jet bridges that lack air conditioning. The company’s break room has a water dispenser but often runs out of cups, they say, and workers resort to getting water handouts from Shake Shack or Starbucks.

Some of the passenger service agents say they walk 10 to 15 miles in the course of a workday as they push wheelchair passengers throughout the airport.

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“Most people are nonstop running, gate after gate after gate,” said Zachary Bodine, a 27-year-old baggage handler who also pushes passengers in wheelchairs at the airport.

Bodine, who has worked for Prospect for two years, said he has felt sick and nauseated from the work this summer, including a day in July pushing wheelchairs.

“My whole shirt was soaking wet because that’s how much I was sweating,” said Bodine, who complained to ADOSH. “Very weakened and fatigued, I almost started vomiting.”

Earlier this year, Prospect implemented a new policy that discourages employees from sitting down while on the job, employees said.

Cecilia Ortiz, 42, a passenger service agent with Prospect, said she has been going into the bathroom to rest because she knows her manager won’t find her there.

“They literally want us on our feet all the time,” said Ortiz, who also filed a complaint. “It’s just kind of crazy we have to sneak away to the restroom just to sit down a little bit.”

Prospect said in a statement that employees who provide wheelchair service may take their breaks or lunch anywhere in the airport with open seating to the public but “employees who are actively working are not allowed to sit in gate areas or charging stations.”

The majority of the aviation industry in the United States is unionized, including professions such as pilots, flight attendants and mechanics. But other airport jobs, such as the Prospect workers at Sky Harbor Airport, are not unionized.

The Service Employees International Union has been organizing with these workers. The union’s president, Mary Kay Henry, said in an interview in July that she is “deeply concerned about the health risks” faced by airport workers across the country as temperatures rise.

Henry said unions are pushing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to create new standards relating to heat that employers would need to comply with, including rules on access to water, breaks and air-conditioned indoor spaces.

“If I have a headache or I feel like I [might] faint, I have the right to stop work and get attention — even that we have to fight for,” Henry said. “When you speak to the workers, it’s outrageous what employers are getting away with.”


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