This Labor Day, Let’s Protect Workers from Extreme Heat

M. Isabelle Chaudry

Sept. 3, 2021

Labor Day got its start in the late 19th Century, when labor activists pushed for a federal holiday to recognize the many contributions workers make to America’s strength, prosperity, and wellbeing.

In addition to our usual picnics and barbeques, we should spend this day uplifting laborers who work in conditions in dire need of regulation — including those exposed to extreme heat or who work in hot environments.

Physical activity makes it difficult for the body to cool itself down, especially as temperatures and humidity rise. The effects can be dangerous, ranging from dizziness, nausea, cramps, exhaustion, and vomiting to faster heart rates and deadly heatstroke. Exposure to extreme heat can also exacerbate preexisting respiratory and heart conditions.

People who work in hot conditions are in special danger. Indeed, heat killed 815 workers on the job between 1992 and 2017 and seriously injured 70,000 more, according to federal records.

And yet: No federal standard protects workers from heat or heat stress.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for protecting laborers from workplace hazards. Yet it has not set a specific standard for workers in hot environments. 

The agency has ignored three CDC recommendations to identify a temperature level above which conditions are deemed inherently unsafe for workers. It has also denied similar petitions from occupational and environmental groups.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first called on OSHA to establish heat-specific protections for workers back in 1975, and it has repeated the call twice in the half century since. Its most recent call came in 2016, in the form of a 200-page report that included new research on how heat stress manifests in laborers. The report also expressed concern about the effect of climate change on workers.

New laws will save lives

Providing workers with rest and shade at increasingly frequent intervals as temperatures rise can save lives. So too can acclimating workers to heat by gradually increasing work hours and work intensity amid high temperatures. Employers must take people’s preexisting health conditions into greater consideration when making work assignments.

In the absence of federal action, California, Washington, Oregon have enacted legislation to protect workers, and other states are considering state-based heat stress standards.

Even so, most of the nation’s workers lack protections. Construction workers, farmworkers and others who work outdoors are suffering, and are particularly vulnerable to heat due to the strenuous nature of their work. Construction workers, for example, comprise just 6 percent of the U.S. workforce but 36 percent of all occupational heat-related deaths.

Indoor workers are also at risk. Many warehouses and meatpacking facilities lack air conditioning, a growing danger as cooler northern latitudes face warming temperatures. Workers at restaurants, laundries, poultry plants, and other spaces are at risk too.

Sadly, this problem is worsening. By the middle of this century, Florida and Texas will see an additional month’s worth of days where heat and humidity combine to feel hotter than 90 degrees, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

We need to protect workers now, before more fall ill, get injured, or die on the job.

We need standards that address temperature, humidity, and other relevant factors like work in direct sunlight, clothing (which can impair sweating), and workload (which increases body heat). Employers must also be required to provide workers with sufficient amounts of cool drinking water and regular rest breaks in shaded areas (especially for those experiencing symptoms). Workers and supervisors need health and safety training. And whistleblowers need protections, as do those who must stop work to protect themselves from heat illness.

In March, lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate introduced the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act of 2021. Named for a California farmworker who died of heat stroke after a 10-hour shift in 105-degree heat, this legislation would require OSHA to issue a federal standard for heat stress protections tailored to specific workplace hazards and with meaningful participation of employees (and their representatives when applicable). It would also guarantee workers exposed to high heat paid breaks in cool or shaded environments and access to water.

Only nine senators — representing less than a fifth of the Senate Democratic caucus — and 72 members of the House are listed as cosponsors of this important bill. CPR urgently calls on lawmakers to get on board and get this legislative train moving now, before the political climate changes in the next election cycle. Workers risk their lives for all of us. It’s time to support them.

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