America’s laborers in farming, construction, warehouses, and factories are dying due to extreme heat. These workers have been advocating for protection from the federal government for years, and the government has finally heeded the call. On Sept. 20, the Biden administration announced that it is developing the first federal standard to protect American workers from the hazardous effects of extreme heat.
President Joe Biden has directed the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to:
- Launch a rule-making process to develop a workplace heat standard.
- Implement an enforcement initiative on heat-related hazards. In parallel, OSHA has launched a new enforcement initiative to prioritize heat-related interventions and workplace inspections on days when the heat index exceeds 80°F.
- Develop a National Emphasis Program on heat inspections to target high-risk industries.
- Form a Heat Illness Prevention Work Group to provide a better understanding of challenges and best practices in protecting workers from heat hazards. This group will include three members of the full National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH)—a public representative, labor representative, and management representative—as well as new members from a range of sectors and industries.
In a statement, Biden acknowledged that the dangers of extreme heat have been exacerbated by the effects of climate change. In the statement, he indicates that according to the National Weather Service, extreme heat kills more American laborers than any other climate-related danger, and is the leading weather-related killer in America—a risk that has only increased amid record-shattering heat around the nation.
Last June alone, there were more than 600 excess deaths from extreme heat in the Pacific Northwest. Researchers at World Weather Attribution have stated unequivocally that the “maximum daily temperatures as observed in the [Pacific Northwest] was virtually impossible without human-caused climate change. Our results provide a strong warning: Our rapidly warming climate is bringing us into uncharted territory that has significant consequences for health, well-being, and livelihoods.”
Workers of color have especially borne the brunt of the heat.
“Amid changing climate, the growing frequency and intensity of extreme heat events is increasing the dangers workers face, especially for workers of color who disproportionately work in essential jobs in tough conditions,” said Labor Secretary Marty Walsh in a release.
In the construction sector alone, roughly half of all laborers are Latinx. Construction workers comprise just 6% of the American workforce, but account for 36% of all work-related heat deaths. Since 2010, Latinx people have accounted for one-third of all heat fatalities among workers, despite only comprising 17% of the overall working population. Laborers are particularly vulnerable to heat due to their strenuous work. Physical activity makes it difficult for the body to cool itself down; the resulting overheating can exacerbate pre-existing respiratory and heart conditions as well as cause dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and heatstroke. But it’s not just those in the sun. Workers at indoor factories and warehouses with no air conditioning are increasingly at risk.
In addition to facing the heat while out in the fields or on the factory floor, relentless temperatures can plague these workers at night. Laborers often have little access to air conditioning on hot nights and are more likely to live in areas with poor air quality and less tree cover, further taxing the bodies trying to cool them down during restless sleep.
Along with the administration’s announcement, the EPA looked at these social factors in a report on Climate Change and Social Vulnerability. The report examined the impact of climate change on socially vulnerable groups based on income, educational attainment, race and ethnicity, and age. In the 49 cities analyzed, the agency found that race and ethnicity was the leading indicator (by a large margin) of someone’s likelihood to be impacted by adverse climate effects, including extreme heat. This was followed by income, which often intersects with race. Black individuals in particular are 40-59% more likely than non-Black individuals to currently live in high-impact areas. The report also indicates the workers of color are roughly 35% more likely to experience lost labor hours due to weather exposure. This data is why Biden has outlined a number of interventions specifically targeting BIPOC communities.
Though the Biden administration’s announcement has brought a sense of optimism, there are still many hurdles to overcome, chief among them is enforcement. Garrett Brown, an inspector of California’s branch of OSHA from 1994 to 2014, has investigated dozens of heat deaths and has documented staffing levels for years, charting the data on his blog, Inside Cal/OSHA. Brown’s figures reveal a tiny workforce—about 190 inspectors for 1 million employers responsible for 18 million workers. That’s one OSHA employee per 88,977 workers, nearly half as many as there were in 1990.
Only 21 states have their own agencies that oversee workplace safety for the private sector; the rest rely on OSHA. Workers’ rights groups, who have long pushed for federal worker safety rules, are hesitant about the amount of time it might take to implement these rules, especially a heat standard. Skeptics also point out that business interests—like the agricultural lobby—could interfere with its implementation.
Workers need protection now, and most states have no regulations, merely following OSHA’s “general duty clause,” which simply states that employers must ensure workplaces are safe from “recognized hazards.” But there is nothing specific to heat.
Some states—like California, Washington, and Oregon—have acted on their own, requiring employers to provide shade, breaks, and water. Yet those who defend OSHA argue that keeping workers safe is difficult to standardize, even with the best intentions. California set the gold standard for heat regulation, and even so, the state experienced 221 heat-related hospitalizations between 2017 and 2019—one-third involved workplaces that complied with the standard.
Biden hopes that the federal government’s interventions will have a greater capacity to reduce heat-related health emergencies. It remains to be seen if the administration can fulfill its promises, and finally help workers beat the heat—before it’s too late.