HOUSTON - KPRC Local 2 investigates workers' claims that one of the country's largest corporations is putting its employees' lives on the line by restricting their access to air conditioning.
KPRC Local 2 first broke this story earlier this month when an AT&T technician said his employer wouldn't let him idle his company truck between jobs to cool down. AT&T denied the claim, but Local 2 investigator Amy Davis did some digging to get to the bottom of the safety issue.
Telecommunications giant AT&T has one of the largest fleets in the nation, and behind the wheel, a fleet of technicians who are becoming increasingly hot, frustrated and outspoken.
"I almost passed out from heat exhaustion," said Mike Ezzell.
AT&T veteran Ezzell, 31, called Local 2 when he saw our story in early August. A technician spoke with us anonymously, saying AT&T wouldn't let him turn on the air conditioning in his company truck. He mounted a thermometer in his AT&T van to show how hot it gets when the air conditioning is not on. In 10 minutes, the thermometer read 120 degrees. The technician said it's how AT&T expects him to work.
AT&T said employees are allowed to idle if excessive heat becomes a health and safety issue, but Ezzell said that's just not true.
"They'll fire you," Ezzell said.
"For sitting in your truck with the A/C on?" Davis asked him.
"For sitting in your truck with the A/C on," Ezzell replied.
Technicians spend most of their shifts outside or up in customer's attics where it can get up to 140 degrees. Their truck is like their office where they complete paperwork after a job and wait for their next assignment.
AT&T is monitoring those trucks by GPS. Supervisors know not only where employees are at all times, but they can also tell if the trucks are idling.
Local 2 obtained an internal AT&T vehicle idling memo that reads, "excessive idling may lead to disciplinary action ... up to and including dismissal. While our goal is to eliminate all unnecessary idle time" ... supervisors will focus on "technicians that idle their vehicle more than 60 minutes in a day."
It says idling for health and safety reasons is acceptable.
"Idling for personal comfort is not allowed," the memo states.
"If you're trying to get into the truck because you're hot, I mean, is that for your personal comfort or is it because you're hot and you're afraid that you're going to overheat?" asked Steven Flores, president of the local union.
Flores said AT&T supervisors remind technicians every day that idling too long will get them fired.
"No matter who you work for right now, you can't afford to lose your job," said Flores.
One technician sent Local 2 Investigates his disciplinary paperwork where he was reprimanded after he passed out on the job from heat exhaustion. When he was released from the hospital, his supervisor informed him he was being disciplined for not keeping himself properly hydrated knowing the type of work he would be involved in and the extreme heat he faced while working.
No one with AT&T would speak with KPRC Local 2 on camera, but by email a representative stated, "If drivers of our entire owned and leased fleet avoided idling for 10 minutes per day, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 40 million pounds per year - the equivalent of planting nearly 109,000 trees per year."
"Who has to die to change the policy?" asked Ezzell. "I almost passed out. I'm 54 years old and the reason I resigned is because I couldn't handle the heat."
AT&T said its records show that in Texas, eight employees suffered heat-related illnesses in July and August so far. But a spokesman said that is out of well more than 5,000 employees who work outside.
KPRC Local 2 checked and found that the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration makes recommendations for companies on how to keep employees safe from extreme heat, but it does not have any requirements that companies must follow.
AT&T said it is trying to comply with a Texas law that says no one is allowed to idle a vehicle weighing more than 14,000 pounds for more than five minutes.
If you have a news tip or question for KPRC Local 2 Investigates, drop them an e-mail or call their tipline at (713) 223-TIPS (8477). Copyright 2011 by Click2Houston.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.