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On August 7, Denver, Colorado—suffocated with smoke from the massive California wildfires—topped the chart of the world’s most polluted major cities.
The Air Quality Index (AQI) reading that day reached 179, in the unhealthy red zone of the Environmental Protection Agency’s rating system. The concentration of fine particulate matter was 11 times the World Health Organization’s recommended maximum exposure level for pollutants. Not just wildfire smoke but also everyday consumer pollutants like shampoo residue, sunscreen particles, and auto emissions combined into a toxic brew of irritants that left many in the city feeling ill with headaches, or wheezy.
Delivering mail under these conditions was sickening, and certainly threatened long-term respiratory health consequences. Yet at our station, postal management made no mention of air quality during safety talks throughout the week. And when I looked for the basis for a grievance or some other action, there were almost no resources to speak of from either the national union or from management.
Postal management has an environmental policy which only specifies indoor air quality as part of its purview. This is a major omission for hundreds of thousands of letter carriers who work outside all day—but it’s part of a longstanding pattern of neglect for basic climate conditions on the part of management. It took decades for postal management to provide bottled water to the carrier workforce on a regular basis, and only since the 2010s has management faced citations from OSHA for indoor heat-related safety violations.
LABOR MUST LEAD
Postal workers have to make it clear that environmental policy is an issue where labor must lead the way. While it is to be expected that management will delay taking responsibility for air quality and related health risks, the union cannot postpone the fight for basic air quality standards. Unfortunately, the National Association of Letter Carriers webpage on extreme weather does not yet include any resources for air quality procedures, only for extreme heat, cold, and lightning.
Compiling resources for letter carriers to understand the risks of hazardous air quality so they can fight back is a first step. Only the California and Oregon state-level Occupational Safety and Health Administrations currently have air quality regulations on their books, and these do not cover federal employees. Letter carriers must call on their representatives to win stronger federal air quality protections, organize on the job for compliance, share information about health hazards, and collectively refuse unsafe work during community disasters like wildfires or other extreme climate events.
We don’t have decades to win essential air quality and extreme weather guarantees, such as mask or respirator provision, and work stoppages beyond certain air quality levels. Letter carriers and other postal workers must unite with all outdoor workers to win crucial safety standards in a new phase of the climate crisis. The initiative of the United Farm Workers in organizing for employer-provided masks and stronger heat and air quality standards shows the way forward.
Ultimately, letter carriers can also play a role in monitoring air quality, as well as checking in on elderly populations vulnerable to heat stroke and other climate maladies in store, as part of an expanded vision for a democratic, union, public postal service. At the station level, we can start by using tools like IQAir to alert our coworkers when a dangerous air quality situation arises, building safety committees to organize around these and other climate events, and pushing our locals to fight for comprehensive protections and protocols for all outdoor workers on the front lines facing the climate crisis.
Malachi Dray is a letter carrier in Denver, Colorado, and shop steward in the National Association of Letter Carriers, Branch 47.