Extreme Heat Is Killing Workers, So the White House Is Adding Protections

After a summer of record temperatures, the Biden Administration announced plans to establish a federal standard to protect workers from extreme heat.
September 23, 2021, 1:00pm
Extreme Heat Is Killing Workers, So the White House Is Adding Protections
Image: Chip Somodevilla / Staff via Getty Images

As a summer that saw record heat grip the country ends, the Biden Administration has announced plans to establish a federal labor standard aimed at protecting workers from extreme temperatures.

Next month, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will begin developing and enforcing a federal standard to limit heat illness and death in the workplace, amid the growing threat of the climate crisis, the White House announced on Monday. 

Advertisement

“Millions of U.S. workers are exposed to heat in their workplaces, and essential jobs with high exposure levels are disproportionately held by Black and Brown workers,” the White House press release on the announcement reads. “Recognizing the seriousness of this threat, the Biden Administration is taking immediate action on heat hazards to protect workers and communities as part of a broader commitment to workplace safety, climate resilience, and environmental justice.” 

The commitment is a multi-agency one, calling on: the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Agriculture; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to act to reduce heat-related illnesses in and beyond work. 

The rulemaking process will likely take many months, Politico noted on Monday, but work toward accomplishing many of the Biden Administration’s short-term goals will begin sooner. OHSA will also establish enforcement interventions and a workplace inspection program for 80°F+ days, formalize a National Emphasis Program to target interventions toward high-risk industries, and form a Heat Illness Prevention working group of stakeholders to continually address issues around workplace heat hazards.

Advertisement

Numerous environmental and labor advocacy groups that have long pushed for greater protections around heat in the workplace, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Earthjustice, and the AFL-CIO, expressed that the move was long overdue. 

“We’ve known for decades that keeping workers cool, hydrated, and rested saves lives,” Juanita Constible, senior advocate in the climate and health and climate and clean energy programs at the NRDC told Motherboard in an email. “Heat waves will continue to get stronger, longer, and more severe even with aggressive pollution limits.”

Indeed, periods of extreme heat are growing in frequency and severity across the globe, posing risks for outdoor and indoor workers alike. According to the EPA, the average number of heat waves per year has tripled since the 1960s, and have steadily grown in length, duration and intensity.

Extreme heat is the most lethal natural disaster in the U.S., disproportionately impacting communities without access to air conditioning, shade, cooling centers, or other ways to escape it. This means that low-income and unhoused individuals, outdoor workers, and elderly and disabled communities and those who live in isolation experience the worst effects. Long-term exposure to heat can lead to heat stroke, cramps, exhaustion and respiratory hospitalization. According to fatal injury data from heat stress injuries killed 815 U.S. workers and seriously injured more than 70,000 between the years 1992 and 2017 (the most up to date statistics currently available.) Some firms have even moved their work hours to keep employees out of the sun during the hottest hours of the day. 

Advertisement

Hot days also come with increased risk of accident, a June study from the University of California, Los Angeles found. Hotter temperatures are associated with approximately 20,000 additional injuries per year, the study found. Days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit—when workers are prone to poorer cognition and decision-making—come with a 6 to 9 percent increase in the risk of worker injury than days in the 50s or 60s. 

“Climate change, it doesn't hit everyone the same,” said Raul Garcia, legislative director for healthy communities at Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law firm. “This is something we're all going to have to learn to live with… but first, it's going to hit those vulnerable populations.” 

Despite the known risks heat poses to workers, OSHA has long ignored recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to establish a temperature floor above which working conditions are deemed inherently unsafe, an August investigation by Politico and E&E News found. The federal push to establish a heat standard comes only after nine administrations worth of reluctance, the outlets reported, and as the agency faces what Constible calls “chronic” understaffing, questions remain about its ability to enforce heat-related labor laws once passed.

Advertisement

Meanwhile, some states are weighing bills that would strip workers of their right to protections from the growing burden of heat. In Texas, a Republican push in August to eliminate requirements for 10-minute water breaks every four hours in Austin and Dallas succeeded in the Senate and Governor’s offices, now lying in the hands of the state House. 

The bill garnered intense criticism from labor advocates, who called it a human rights violation. But a federal standard would set a baseline for working conditions that states cannot erode. 

“This needs to be a warning to all those states like Texas, that are looking to cut protections, that this is not allowed,” Garcia said.

The forthcoming federal heat standard follows in the footsteps of similar legislation in California, Minnesota, and Washington—the only three states in the country with permanent heat standards, all of which fall short of protecting all at-risk workers in some way. 

California, for example, adopted the country’s first set of worker protections from heat stress in 2005, requiring employers to provide workers with access to at least one quart of filtered drinking water per hour, shade when experiencing heat illness, and training around heat-related risk factors. Albeit groundbreaking at the time, the legislation only covers outdoor workers, and has recently garnered criticism for being ineffective as California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) struggles to fund inspections. 

Likewise, Washington’s permanent heat rule only applies to outdoor workers for part of the year; Minnesota’s legislation, for its part, only covers indoor workers. 

The federal standard, however, would fill these gaps—and bolster an ongoing conversation about adapting to the threat of the climate crisis, Constible believes. 

“Heat is an under-appreciated threat to our health,” she said. “We need to get serious about protecting ourselves.”