Workers are getting sick from the heat and Charlotte must protect them, union says

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utility Department workers braved the heat in 2014 as they replaced water and sewer lines on Beatties Ford Road.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utility Department workers braved the heat in 2014 as they replaced water and sewer lines on Beatties Ford Road. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

On a steamy afternoon in early July, Charlotte water department employee Charles Sifford was driving a city truck when he began to feel light-headed.

The heat index had climbed to more than 90 degrees, and Sifford says the air conditioning on his truck wasn’t working that day.


Minutes later, Sifford passed out. An ambulance rushed him to the hospital, where doctors determined he was suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion, he said.

“If I hadn’t pulled over, no telling what would have happened,” Sifford said.

UE Local 150 – a union that represents thousands of public workers in North Carolina – is campaigning to protect employees from the heat.

Like most North Carolina cities, Charlotte has no comprehensive policy to protect its workers from heat-related illnesses, union leaders say. And as Charlotte grows, its city staff has not kept pace, they contend. That has left workers facing greater workloads – and greater health risks, they say.

I wonder if city workers have kind of become the forgotten people.

Kevin O’Grady, president of the Charlotte chapter of UE Local 150

Kevin O’Grady, president of the Charlotte chapter of UE Local 150, said he has heard of about 10 city workers who have suffered heat-related illnesses on the job this summer.

O’Grady says that while city officials have shown concern about the health of their workers, union leaders would like to see a more comprehensive plan to protect them from the heat.

“We’ve become an upwardly mobile city,” he said. “But I wonder if city workers have kind of become the forgotten people. … If people aren’t well taken care of, it could cost the city in other ways.”

City officials did not address the Observer’s questions about Sifford’s case. Spokeswoman Jordan-Ashley Walker said in an email Tuesday that she could not release information about current and former employees, citing privacy laws.

The city also did not address the union’s claim that the city’s growth has outpaced staffing.

In an email sent to City Council members earlier this month to address the union’s concerns, the city said it takes several precautions to protect workers from the heat, including:

▪ Modifying shift schedules and work practices based on climate.

▪ Sending hourly updates on the heat index to Solid Waste Services dispatchers.

▪ Providing water, Gatorade, coolers and ice chests to workers.

But union leaders say there’s more to be done. They point to the death of Anthony Milledge.

Milledge, a 52-year-old laborer with Charlotte’s yard-waste division, worked from 6:30 a.m. to 8:40 p.m. on July 11, union leaders say. The afternoon temperature in Charlotte reached a high of 91 degrees that day, and the heat index – which accounts for both heat and humidity – rose to 96.6 degrees.

Milledge suffered a fatal heart attack less than an hour after getting home that night, union leaders say.

Walker said that Milledge’s death was “unrelated to employment with the city.”

Two construction workers talk about what it's like to work in hot weather and how they manage to stay cool.

No autopsy was conducted. But union leaders point to medical research showing that working in hot weather can strain the heart.

The state labor department, which regulates workplace safety, wasn’t notified about Milledge’s death, an agency spokesman said. But following questions from the Observer, officials for the labor department have contacted the city and have begun investigating the death, the spokesman said.

More than a dozen union members who work for the city of Charlotte met with city officials on Aug. 4 to discuss the heat-related dangers faced by city workers.

In North Carolina, government workers can join unions, but state law bans those organizations from collective bargaining.

‘The moral thing to do’

Union leaders say they’ve seen progress since the meeting on Aug. 4. But they believe more can be done to protect city workers who toil outdoors.

A Charlotte resident can put thousands of pounds of yard waste on the curb, and city workers are expected to clean it up.

But Raleigh, Durham and Rocky Mount limit how much yard waste residents can set out.

Durham, for example, restricts households to filled carts that should weigh no more than 100 pounds. Failure to follow the rules, the city says, can pose added risks to workers.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends longer rest periods as temperatures rise. That’s what the Durham water department does.

“The city (of Charlotte) is absolutely not following that,” says Dante Strobino, a statewide field organizer for UE Local 150.

There is no statewide standard dictating how employers must protect workers from the heat. But the state labor and health departments both have campaigns to educate workers about the dangers of working outdoors in the summer.

“Workers deserve to work in healthy and safe conditions,” said Nathanette Mayo, president of UE Local 150. “If you have healthy workers, they can contribute more to the city and the community. And it’s just the moral thing to do.”

Ames Alexander: 704-358-5060, @amesalex

Fred Clasen-Kelly: 704-358-5027, @FrederickClasen