By Emma Ockermann
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration began considering a heat-specific workplace rule last year
Imagine the sun scorching your back as a farm hand or construction worker in late summer, or as a warehouse or kitchen worker wrapped in scorching heat without access to air conditioning.
This is the reality for essential workers in the US. However, the country lacks specific federal regulation to protect workers in dangerous heat.
Such standards, which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began considering last year, could provide better access to water, rest and shade, and make otherwise harsh work environments more tolerable — and safer.
While Juley Fulcher, a worker health and safety advocate at Public Citizen, a progressive group, said she’s glad OSHA is conducting the rulemaking process, it could be years before OSHA actually finalizes a federal standard, and the process could dissipate if Republicans win the presidency in 2024.
Some workers argue that they need help now.
“It’s the same people who were out there during COVID while we were all huddled in our apartments — these are often the same people struggling with excessive heat,” Fulcher said. “Rural workers have the highest rate of heat deaths. Overall, construction workers have the most people dying from heat every year.”
Away from the country’s farms and construction sites, workers in restaurants, commercial laundries, warehouses, delivery trucks and more face similar risks as America’s summers heat up. Right now, the western United States is being gripped by the kind of heatwave the country can expect to experience more frequently and more intensely amid worsening climate change. Temperatures in Sacramento hit 114 degrees Monday, while the city of Livermore in California’s Bay Area also recorded a punishing 116 degrees.
(California, it should be noted, has its own heat safety standard. Employers shall “provide field workers with fresh water, access to shade at 80 degrees and, if required by a worker, cool-down breaks in addition to regular rest breaks and grooming one.” written prevention plan that includes training on the signs of heat illness and what to do in an emergency,” read a statement from Cal/OSHA, the state’s Department of Occupational Safety and Health, released last week.)
Already, environmental heat is “probably responsible” for 170,000 work-related injuries annually and up to 2,000 worker deaths, according to Public Citizen’s “Boiling Point” report, authored by Fulcher and released earlier this summer. Vulnerable workers, the report says, are disproportionately Hispanic/Latino or black.
“For example, while Latinx workers make up 17.6% of the total workforce, they make up 65% of farm workers, graders and graders, and harvest workers are 20 times more likely to die from heat stress than the rest of the U.S. workforce,” organizations such as Public wrote Citizen in a letter to members of Congress last year: “More than 46% of workers and freight, warehouse 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 who work in camps and warehouses.”
In comments submitted to OSHA as part of the government’s rulemaking process, individuals described working on a restaurant patio in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees and being treated for heat exhaustion; next to it two hot ovens, two grills and a hob with only a hood fan for air circulation; at an unair-conditioned restaurant that once got so hot that the worker vomited and nearly passed out; and as a hardscaper who experienced “multiple heat exhaustion to the point of hallucinations.”
Nonetheless, some trade, industry, and business groups have publicly expressed disapproval or skepticism about a federal standard. The American Farm Bureau Federation, for example, said in a comment to OSHA that while “many farmers” recognize the importance of workplace safety, they are already “ensuring workers avoid heat stress by shifting their hours to cover the hottest hours of the day.” avoid which is encouraging staff taking breaks when needed and providing shade and water.”
“Mitigating heat illness and stress is not the sole responsibility of the employer, and OSHA’s approach should reflect that 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 the heat by enforcing its general duty clause, which states that employers must generally provide a workplace there , where workers are free from “recognized hazards” that can cause death or personal injury.
However, Fulcher said that OSHA only occasionally makes citations under the General Mandatory Clause for heat-related issues, noting that this sets a “really high bar” for proving that there was a recognized hazard that could lead to death or harm led or was likely to lead .
In the meantime, while OSHA goes through its regulatory process, the agency could introduce an enforceable transitional rule to protect workers, Fulcher said. This could include the creation of ‘heat stress thresholds’ or minimum temperatures at which employers must take action, as well as limitations on work pace and workload in very hot temperatures.
An acclimation plan, or allowing workers the time it takes to adjust their bodies to the heat, would also help prevent heat stress deaths. Training on how to manage and prevent heat stress, as well as access to water, rest and a cool place are also essential.
“Most people who die from heat stress at a workplace are there in the first week of work,” Fulcher said. “Your body isn’t used to it. You essentially have to condition your body to work in this heat. So you have to gradually increase the heavy workload over a period of one to two weeks. ”
In addition, the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, led by Democratic Representatives Judy Chu, Bobby Scott, Alma Adams and Raúl Grijalva in the House of Representatives and Sens. Alex Padilla, Sherrod Brown and Catherine Cortez Masto in the Senate, would both require OSHA to do so establish a federal standard for protecting workers in extreme heat; and provide employers with training on risks and procedures.
Chu and Padilla campaigned for the law alongside workers during a press conference last week, with Padilla noting that the proposal’s namesake died of 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
With no federal standards, there are a few things workers can do to protect themselves from heat stress. Information about how to cool down your body, identify risks and help others by establishing a buddy system is widely available, Fulcher said.
Workers can be affected by heat differently based on their individual health conditions. But it’s also important to be aware of what over-the-counter or recreational drugs can contribute to heat illness, and to avoid alcohol or energy drinks and drink plenty 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 don’t get overheated and tired, which could ultimately hurt productivity.
Unions can also negotiate safe conditions, although many workers affected by heat stress, such as migrant farm workers, are not typically unionized, Fulcher said.
“There are things you can educate yourself on, ways to make your body more resilient and at least not make it more prone to heat sickness — regardless of what your boss is willing to do,” Fulcher said.
– Emma Ockermann
(ENDS) Dow Jones Newswires
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