Politics of Poverty

Scorching heat is killing workers in the US. We need safety standards.

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farmworker heat.jpg
As the climate warms, countless people work in conditions that grow more dangerous every year: From farmworkers and construction workers in the sun to restaurant workers in hot kitchens to workers in industrial laundries and warehouses and beyond. And yet, the US has no national standards on protecting workers from extreme heat. Photo: Morsa Images

[ PART OF A SERIES ON OUR CHANGING CLIMATE ] | Record-setting heat in the US this summer has accounted for several fatalities on the job, adding to hundreds in the last decade. As the climate warms, it’s well past time for the federal government to put standards in place to keep workers safe from heat hazards.

It hit 116 degrees in Portland, Oregon this summer—and people were still reporting to work, facing extreme risks with no mandated protections against the heat.

It’s not just uncomfortable to work in high heat—it’s potentially deadly. As this blistering summer has delivered record-setting temperatures, it’s also brought news of more workers dying from heat illness. Farm workers in the fields, a construction worker on a highway, a worker at a warehouse; each one a preventable tragedy that demands action to prevent the next.

According to an NPR investigation, at least 384 workers have died this way in the last decade. The numbers mount as families mourn these preventable losses. Millions of people in the US work in conditions that are growing more dangerous every year: From farmworkers and construction workers in the sun to restaurant workers in hot kitchens to workers in industrial laundries and warehouses and beyond.

We know the dangers, and the symptoms, and the ways to prevent these deaths. We have known them for years. So the questions loom: why are many employers failing to protect their workers, and why has OSHA failed to issue and enforce a national standard on heat?

Increasing heat hazards

2021 witnessed a series of severe weather events—including record-breaking heat waves—even in regions with historically moderate climates, where they aren’t prepared for extremes. The “heat dome” brought unprecedented heat to Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, two of the least air-conditioned cities in the nation that also have large homeless populations. (Read more on rising temperatures and the role of fossil fuels.)

As usual in the climate crisis, the impacts fall disproportionately on the shoulders of those who have the fewest resources to cope, and who are the least responsible for carbon emissions. People in low-wage, high-exposure jobs—disproportionately people of color—are the ones most at risk of heat illness.

Heat illness is a dangerous hazard faced by many low wage workers, both in indoor and outdoor settings, and one that is exacerbated by social inequality and climate change. It can be deadly, or result in serious injury, and it can be difficult to understand or prepare for, especially if workers are not trained to identify warning signs and empowered with effective systems to seek help and find cool areas in the shade to rest. Unlike many other stressors on the body, heat stress accrues over time, so that a worker exposed to heat one day is more susceptible to it the next day even if they rest in a cool place overnight.

Federal protections are lacking

There is no national standard to protect workers from exposure to heat illness, despite a wide range of research that substantiates the danger. This is partly a result of the dysfunctional and drawn-out nature of the rulemaking process for federal worker protections, which has resulted in workplace health and safety standards in America being chronically behind the latest science and the needs of workers.

It is also a reflection of the severe understaffing and budgetary constraints faced by an agency that fields roughly 2,000 safety inspectors (including state employees under state OSHA’s) to protect almost ten million workplaces. The lack of a formal standard on this issue in the decades since OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) was created also reflects an ingrained disregard for hazards faced primarily by workers of color in America–yet another manifestation of the long road America has to go towards racial and gender justice.

While OSHA can and does cite employers for not addressing heat hazards under the OSH Act’s general duty clause, such enforcement faces a steep battle in courts due to the lack of a formal standard establishing clear thresholds and requirements, and penalties that can be assessed amount to rounding errors for large companies that see paying for pushing the limits of safety when they are caught as a cost of doing business. Those fines need to come up in order to be meaningful, and there is some hope that Congress will do so in the forthcoming Build Back Better Act.

States Are Leading on Heat

In the absence of federal regulation, some states have taken steps to protect workers from heat hazards. Oregon and Washington have taken the initiative and issued emergency standards around heat issues.  The Oregon standard has been hailed by advocates as the most protective of the two, and includes:

  • Requirements for access to shade and water at an 80 degree threshold;
  • Training on heat-related illnesses for workers exposed to such conditions;
  • Additional high heat practices above a 90 degree threshold, including paid breaks in the shade every 2 hours, and an emergency medical plan with procedures for responding effectively when heat illness happens;
  • A requirement to implement effective acclimatization practices to prepare workers over time for exposure.

While not perfect, this emergency standard reflects the type of leadership we need to see from state labor agencies. According to Kate Suisman, an attorney at the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, "Environmental, public health and worker advocates fought for and won immediate, strong protections during high heat. Oregon, which is usually temperate, now regularly sees temperatures over 100 degrees. Workers everywhere need protections that prioritize health and safety over the bottom line."

We need climate justice and a Federal Emergency Standard

At the federal level, a coalition of advocates and workers led by Public Citizen have been calling for a federal heat standard for years, and in the short term for an Emergency Temporary Standard, similar to what Oregon and Washington have done. There is even a bill in Congress that would require OSHA to do so; the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act is named in honor of a worker who died a preventable and tragic death from heat illness in 2004 while picking grapes for 10 hours in 105 degree heat. Congress and the Administration must act quickly in response to this worsening challenge.

That vital effort needs to be urgently coupled with real steps towards climate justice, including clear and meaningful efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions and work towards a just transition to sustainable energy.

In the meantime, and while the ponderous federal bureaucracy and political morass consider action, it falls to more states to step up and issue emergency measures to save lives in the deadly heat waves to come.


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