Imagine the scorching sun at your back as a farm laborer or a construction worker outdoors in late summer, or being engulfed in punishing heat as a warehouse or kitchen staffer without access to air conditioning.
That’s the reality for essential workers across the U.S. Yet the country lacks a specific federal rule for protecting workers in dangerous heat conditions.
Such standards, which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began to consider last year, could offer better access to water, rest breaks, and shade, making otherwise tough working environments more tolerable — and more safe.
While Juley Fulcher, a worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen, a progressive group, said she’s glad OSHA is carrying out the rule-making process, it could be years before OSHA actually finalizes a federal standard, and the process could unravel if Republicans win the presidency in 2024.
Some workers argue they need help now.
“It’s these same folks who were out there during COVID, while we were all huddled in our apartments — these are often the same folks that are dealing with excessive heat,” Fulcher said. “Agriculture workers have the highest rate of death from heat. Construction workers overall have the highest number of people who die every year of heat.”
“‘Agriculture workers have the highest rate of death from heat. Construction workers overall have the highest number of people who die every year of heat.’”
— Juley Fulcher, a worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen
Beyond the nation’s farms and construction sites, workers in restaurants, commercial laundries, warehouses, delivery trucks, and more face similar risks as American summers get hotter and hotter. Right now, the western United States is engulfed in the kind of heatwave the country can expect to experience with greater frequency and more intensity amid worsening climate change. Temperatures in Sacramento hit 114 degrees Monday, while the California Bay Area city of Livermore also recorded punishing temperatures of 116 degrees.
(California, it should be noted, has its own heat-safety standard. Employers are supposed to “provide outdoor workers with fresh water, access to shade at 80 degrees and whenever requested by a worker, cool-down rest breaks in addition to regular breaks and maintain a written prevention plan with training on the signs of heat illness and what to do in case of an emergency,” according to a statement from Cal/OSHA, the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, issued last week.)
Already, environmental heat is “likely responsible” for 170,000 work-related injuries annually, and up to 2,000 worker deaths, according to Public Citizen’s “Boiling Point” report, which was written by Fulcher and published earlier this summer. Endangered workers, the report said, are disproportionately Hispanic/Latino or Black.
“For example, while Latinx workers make up 17.6% of the entire workforce, they make up 65% of farm laborers, graders, and sorters, and crop workers die from heat stress at a rate 20 times greater than the rest of the U.S. workforce,” organizations including Public Citizen wrote in a letter to members of Congress last year. “More than 46% of laborers and freight, stock, and materials movers are Black and Hispanic/Latinx, as are more than 52% of laundry and dry-cleaning workers, 52% of cooks, and 58% of those working in warehouses and storage.”
“Environmental heat is ‘likely responsible’ for 170,000 work-related injuries annually, and up to 2,000 worker deaths, according to Public Citizen’s ‘Boiling Point’ report”
In comments submitted to OSHA as part of the government’s rule-making process, people described working on a restaurant patio in temperatures above 100 degrees and being treated for heat exhaustion; beside two hot ovens, two grills, and a stovetop with only one hood fan for air circulation; in a restaurant without air conditioning that once got so hot the worker vomited and nearly passed out; and as a hardscaper who experienced “heat exhaustion multiple times to the point of hallucinations.”
Still, some trade, industry, and business groups have publicly expressed their disapproval or skepticism surrounding a federal standard. The American Farm Bureau Federation, for example, said in a comment to OSHA that while recognizing the importance of workplace safety, “many farmers” already “ensure workers avoid heat stress by shifting their work schedules to avoid the hottest hours of the day, encouraging employees to take breaks as needed, and providing shade and water.”
“Mitigating heat illness and exposure is not the sole responsibility of the employer, and OSHA’s approach should reflect this reality,” the American Farm Bureau Federation said.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment from MarketWatch, also noted that OSHA can protect workers from heat through enforcement of its General Duty Clause, which states that employers must generally provide a place of work where employees are free from “recognized hazards” that can cause death or physical harm.
However, Fulcher said that OSHA only occasionally makes citations under the General Duty Clause for heat-related issues, noting it’s a “really high bar to meet” to prove that there was a recognized hazard that was resulting or likely to result in death or harm.
“An acclimatization plan allowing workers the time needed to adjust their bodies to heat would also help prevent deaths from heat stress, as would training, plus access to water, rest, and a cool place.”
While OSHA moves through its regulatory process, the agency could implement an enforceable, interim rule to protect workers in the meantime, Fulcher said. That might include the creation of “heat stress thresholds,” or the minimum temperatures at which employers need to take action, as well as restrictions around the pace of work and workload when it’s very hot.
An acclimatization plan, or allowing workers the time needed to adjust their bodies to heat would also help prevent deaths from heat stress. Training on how to deal with and prevent heat stress, as well as access to water, rest, and a cool place, is crucial as well.
“The majority of people who die of heat stress in a workplace are in their first week of work there,” Fulcher said. “Your body is not used to it. You have to condition your body, essentially, to be able to work in that level of heat. So, you need to, over a period of one to two weeks, gradually increase the heavy workload.”
Additionally, the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, led by Democratic Reps. Judy Chu, Bobby Scott, Alma Adams and Raúl Grijalva in the House and Sens. Alex Padilla, Sherrod Brown and Catherine Cortez Masto in the Senate, would both require OSHA to establish a federal standard to protect workers in high-heat conditions and employers to provide training on risks and procedures.
Chu and Padilla promoted the legislation alongside workers during a press conference last week, with Padilla noting that the proposal’s namesake died of a heat stroke two decades ago while picking grapes on a too-hot day in California, according to the Los Angeles Times.
What workers can do now
Without federal standards in place, there are a few things workers can do to protect themselves from heat stress. Information on how to cool down your body, spot risks, and help others by establishing a buddy system is widely available, Fulcher said.
Workers may be affected differently by heat based on their own individual health conditions. But it’s also important to know what over-the-counter or recreational drugs can contribute to heat illness, and to avoid drinking alcohol or energy drinks, opting for lots of water instead.
Otherwise, workers can talk to their bosses about some of the simpler things their workplace could do: provide access to more water, shade, and breaks to ensure they’re not overheated and fatigued, which could ultimately reduce productivity.
Unions can also negotiate for safe conditions, though many workers affected by heat stress, like migrant farmworkers, are typically not unionized, Fulcher said.
“There are things you can educate yourself about, ways that you can sort of make your body resilient and at least not make it more susceptible to heat illness — independent of whatever your boss is willing to do,” Fulcher said.