State Watch

Attorneys general call for federal protections against deadly workplace heat

A construction worker drinks water while on a break from working on a street paving crew Friday, Sept. 1, 2017, in Orinda, Calif. In 2023, attorneys general are pushing for regulations that protect workers from excessive heat. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Seven attorneys general are calling on the federal government to create emergency standards to protect workers from the summer’s deadly heat by the beginning of May.

“Extreme workplace heat poses a grave danger to the health and safety of tens of millions of outdoor and indoor workers in our states and across the nation,” the attorneys, led by New York Attorney General Letitia James, wrote in a letter addressed to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Assistant Secretary of Labor Douglas Parker.

The letter — also signed by the attorneys general of California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania — builds on decades of concerted efforts by civil society groups to get the agency to pass rules requiring workers to access potentially lifesaving measures like water breaks, time in the shade and access to air-conditioned cooling centers.

Currently, no such national rules exist, and only five states have guidelines in place, according to a study by the environmental nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council. 

These rules include Washington and Oregon’s 2021 emergency heat rules, enacted in the face of that year’s deadly heat wave. A rule in Minnesota covers only indoor workers, while Colorado’s heat rule only covers farmworkers. Finally, a 2022 California law requires employers to provide access to water and shade, and to have an organized way of keeping tabs on employees when temperatures rise above 95 degrees — as well as a 10-minute cooling-off period every two hours.

The California law, however, won’t take effect until 2025 — and summer is just a few months away. 

With potentially deadly heat conditions around the corner, such an OSHA measure would represent “the bare minimum,” New York University law professor Bethany Davis Noll wrote in a statement on Thursday.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 40 workers die each year of heat-related illnesses sustained on the job. But about 170,000 workers are likely injured on the job by heat each year, according to estimates published in a report last June by nonprofit advocacy group Public Citizen.

These workers may feel they will jeopardize their jobs by taking breaks, University of Arizona heat researcher Ladd Keith told The Hill.

“They may resist taking a nonmandatory break to show that they’re a good worker, or to get the job done early — all of that type of stuff to increase their productivity,” Keith said.

For that reason, “an honor system doesn’t work. Mandatory breaks when it gets hot are really important,” he added.

As climate change creates heat waves that happen more frequently, last longer and hit higher temperatures, America’s workers — on farms and construction sites, as well as in food service and e-commerce — have little legal protection against “dangerous levels of heat and humidity,” they attorneys wrote in their letter.

Heat also creates knock-on health impacts because of its relationship with air pollution — as hot, stagnant days increase particulates and ozone in the air, according to the Center for Atmospheric Research.

The attorneys’ complaint focused primarily on risks to a few particular occupations — such as the nation’s 2.4 million farmworkers, a group that has made up more than a third of California’s heat-related deaths since 2005. 

Construction workers make up just 6 percent of the nation’s workers, but 36 percent of its heat-related deaths — a trend that the attorneys noted was steadily increasing.

They also singled out the rapidly growing warehouse and delivery industries. NBC News reported that these businesses often expect drivers and packers to labor through the summer in buildings and trucks without air conditioning.

Last July, United Parcel Service (UPS) drivers demonstrated in New York City over the sweltering conditions in their trucks.

“I’ve been working for two years and I’ve never felt heat like that. That was crazy,” one of the drivers told New York’s The City. “It’s just not a good situation for anybody to be working in that heat.”

UPS, he added, was not giving them access to fans or breaks to cool off.

Then there were the warehouse workers — foot soldiers in a rapidly expanding e-commerce army — whose numbers have surged from 668,000 in 2011 to 1.75 million as of last month, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. 

These are “dangerous places to work” during heat events, the attorneys wrote. Last August, workers at a Southern California Amazon facility went on strike over pay and the risk posed by heat.

“Working in the heat feels like you are suffocating,” worker Melissa Ojeda told the Los Angeles Times. “You need to take breaks and you can overheat really easily.”

But Amazon, she said, doesn’t “make it easy to take breaks to allow your body to cool down.”

The lack of heat protections in these workplaces means a disporportionate toll of heat-related diseases on Black and Hispanic workers, a report last year by Public Citizen found.

“Millions of essential workers across the country, working both indoors and outdoors, risk their health and lives working in excessive heat conditions to keep our economy running,” Juley Fulcher, who authored the report, wrote in a statement. 

Working at high temperatures strains the human body, which usually relies on air temperatures being less than the normal body temperature — 98.6 degrees — to effectively dump heat into the environment. 

When higher temperatures are present — particularly as physical work raises the internal temperature — heat instead flows the other way, raising the body temperature and leaving only sweating as a means of cooling off.

But when humidity climbs too high, the air can no longer absorb water — creating a risk of a deadly thermal runaway inside the workers’ bodies.

Last July, for example, Esteban Chavez Jr., 24 years old, died of heat stroke after passing out in his truck in northeast Los Angeles, ABC7 News reported. 

His case bore a striking resemblance to one the previous year — that of 23-year-old driver Jose Cruz Rodriguez, who was found dead of heat-related illness near his truck in Waco, Texas, in August, on his second day of work. 

Putting uniform national heat rules in place will require a fair amount of fine-tuning, Keith explained.

“Monitoring heat in just in one spot in a large agricultural field isn’t going to tell you what people are feeling like out in the sun versus in the shade — or versus on a concrete lot where maybe they’re doing some other kind of mechanical work,” he said, adding that it creates additional complexity.

“How can you get a regulated employer especially if it’s a small business to kind of have the capacity and the resources to do these measurements and what did they do with that information?” Keith asked. Though, he said, not all fixes would be complicated.

“Whether it’s a cooling truck or a shade structure with water, it can go a long way,” he added.

Tags attorneys general California federal protections heat advisory heat deaths heat stroke Heat wave Letitia James Letitia James New York Occupational Safety and Health Administration warehouse workplace heat

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