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Letter carrier complained about heat before collapse

His mother said James Baldassarre complained to his wife of the unbearable heat.

Colm O'Molloy for The Boston Globe

His mother said James Baldassarre complained to his wife of the unbearable heat.

HAVERHILL — It was another oppressively hot day, and like all letter carriers who brave the elements, James Baldassarre had been slogging through his route in Medford on Friday afternoon.

Donning long pants, the 45-year-old lugged his hefty mail bag. And although his wife, Cathy, had packed nine cold waters and Gatorade for him to drink, the heat became unbearable.

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“He was texting his wife all day, saying the heat was killing him,’’ said his mother, Betty Tuneburg, who lives with the couple in Haverhill. “The last time he texted was at 3:45 p.m.”

At some point after that, Baldassarre collapsed and later died.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which was notified by the Postal Service, is investigating Baldassarre’s death, according to Department of Labor spokesman Ted Fitzgerald.

The incident has prompted the Massachusetts Coalition for Safety and Health to call for tougher standards to protect workers from extreme heat.

“This tragic accident should signal the need for more protective measures,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, the organization’s executive director, in a statement.

‘When you are in a heat wave, two breaks are not enough.’

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Goldstein-Gelb said OSHA should enact a federal standard that protects workers — both indoor and outdoor — from heat illnesses and should include mandatory rest breaks and access to sufficient water and shade.

US Postal Service officials said the agency has practices and procedures in place to keep its workers safe from extreme weather and that it uses educational tools to inform workers how to protect themselves.

Employees are advised on wearing proper attire for various weather conditions, hydrating frequently, and taking breaks to relax from heat conditions, the agency said.

“The safety and well-being of our employees is a top priority for the Postal Service,’’ said Melissa Lohnes, spokeswoman for the agency’s Greater Boston district. “Our letter carriers deliver the nation’s mail in all types of weather and ground conditions, and we recognize that our employees face a variety of environmental conditions while performing their daily duties.”

Baldassarre’s case is the second since last July in which heat appeared to be a factor in the death of a Postal Service letter carrier, and both have raised serious concerns, said Manuel L. Peralta Jr., director of safety and health of the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Walking a typical route of a letter carrier — bound to work in rain, snow, and heat — takes about six hours. Workers are allowed just two breaks per shift, and many carry heavy mail bags of up to 35 pounds, Peralta said. “When you are in a heat wave, two breaks are not enough,’’ said Peralta, whose Washington-based group represents nearly 200,000 active letter carriers nationwide.

Peralta said a letter carrier from Independence, Mo., died after complaining about working in 100-degree heat, but his manager refused to let him leave early and seek relief. OSHA cited the Missouri postal branch office in the death.

Since that death, Peralta said his group has been stepping up pressure on the Postal Service on heat safety, but he said it has been a struggle.

Baldassarre was a letter carrier for 19 years and worked in the Medford Post Office on Forest Street. He has worked for the Postal Service for 24 years.

Tuneburg said her son left for work around 6 a.m. on Friday and was working overtime. As temperatures peaked around 95 degrees on Friday, Baldassarre began sending text messages to his wife about the heat.

Tuneburg said Baldassarre was overweight, but that he had walked his route regularly without any health issues. “He was a great son. He was very sensitive. He was very quiet.”

A passerby saw him collapse on Riverside Avenue, according to Deputy Chief Scott Graham of the Medford Fire Department. When EMTs arrived, they found Baldassarre had a strong pulse and was breathing, but he was unresponsive.

He was taken by ambulance to Massachusetts General Hospital, where officials said he died at 10:24 a.m. on Saturday.

Jarret Bencks, Globe correspondent, contributed to this report. He can be reached at bencks.globe@gmail.com. Meghan Irons can be reached atmirons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.
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