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Who Is Protecting American Workers from the Heat?

August 28, 2023 | Employment Law

A historic heat wave that began blasting the Southwest and other parts of the country this summer is shining a spotlight on one of the harshest, yet least-addressed effects of U.S. climate change: the rising deaths and injuries of people who work in extreme heat, whether inside warehouses and kitchens or outside under the blazing sun. Many of them are migrants in low-wage jobs.


Do we even have an accurate accounting of death and injuries from working in hot conditions? A construction worker missing the back-up beep on a heavy vehicle, because they have a heat induced headache, will get listed as a vehicular accident, not heat-related. If a roofer gets dizzy from the heat and falls to their death, the fall is going to be listed as a cause of death, not the heat. The death of an undocumented farmworker from lack of water will likely never be listed.


Statistics that the Bureau of Labor Statistics have on environmental heat deaths, 436 from 2011-2021, and on serious injuries from heat, more than 70,000 workers from 1992 to 2017, are clearly undercounts.


While Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has published some suggestions from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) on how to deal with workplace heat stress, it has not created rules which would be legally enforceable mandates specifying breaks, access to shade and water, health monitoring and acclimatization; the process of gradually building tolerance to heat.


The Biden administration directed OSHA to begin creating mandates in 2021, and OSHA expects to have its rules by 2028 or so, because such rules get a lot of corporate resistance. More than 130 labor and environmental organizations, as well as some states’ attorneys general, have called on OSHA to issue emergency rules, which would push more states to create their own rules.  A group of Democratic U.S. Congress members introduced a bill last month that would effectively speed up the process by legislating heat standards.


Heat protection laws have faced steady industry opposition, including chambers of commerce and other business associations. They say a blanket mandate would be too difficult to implement across such a wide range of industries.


“It all comes down to the dollar,” said Vince Saavedra, secretary-treasurer and lobbyist for Southern Nevada Building Trades, a group that is all too familiar with working in extreme heat. “But I’ll challenge anybody to go work outside with any of these people, and then tell me that we don’t need these regs.”