After decades of inaction, the federal government is taking a major step toward protecting workers from extreme heat.
The White House on Monday said the administration will start the rulemaking process for standards that would protect Americans from the kind of heat exposure that has led to hospitalizations and even death in the workplace.
The announcement of forthcoming action from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an agency within the Labor Department, comes after a years-long push from advocates and health experts who have sounded the alarm over worker deaths, especially in vulnerable communities.
OSHA is also expected to expand the scope of on-site inspections and develop a program targeting high-risk industries. The agency said its enforcement initiative would apply to general industry, agriculture, construction and maritime.
The White House did not specify what kinds of requirements are in the works, raising questions among some lawmakers and stakeholders about just how strong the standards will be.
“The standards and the rulemaking that needs to be developed around that standard all have to be premised on how we protect those workers. And if we can do that, then I’m very confident that the rulemaking and the standards are going to be strong,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) told The Hill.
“But specifically it’s about breaks, it’s about ventilation, it’s about being able to deal with the employers in terms of heat-related issues ... and it is about availability of water, availability of break time, availability of shade and availability of cooling,” added Grijalva, one of several lawmakers in recent years to introduce legislation pushing for a heat standard to protect workers.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 43 workers died from heat illness in 2019 and at least 2,410 had heat-related injuries.
OSHA for decades had declined to take up a heat standard, despite urging from environment and labor groups as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health first recommended a workplace standard for hot environments in 1972, followed by subsequent reports over the years with criteria for crafting the standards.
In a report from 2016, the CDC recommended setting heat exposure limits, implementing medical monitoring and requiring protective clothing and equipment.
“It’s been 50 years that this has kind of been on OSHA’s plate as something that should be addressed in a formal way and they haven’t done that, so hopefully we’re going to get there now,” said Juley Fulcher, a worker health and safety advocate with Public Citizen, one of numerous groups that have been petitioning OSHA for a heat standard over the past decade.
Meanwhile, other advocates have been emphasizing that vulnerable workers are among those most likely to be harmed by the lack of a workplace heat standard.
“There are communities, primarily of color and poor, that suffer disproportionate negative impacts,” Grijalva said.
“They don’t get the same level of protection or response that other workers deserve and get,” he added. “It’s about extending that protection to a group of essential workers that have been left out for decades.”
Some proponents are calling for OSHA to impose an emergency standard since the rulemaking process, especially for workplace safety issues, can often take years.
“We know that extreme heat is a long-term problem, but also recognize the urgency to address its immediate impacts. As with any matter involving worker safety, we look at all the tools in our tool-box,” a Labor Department spokesperson told The Hill in a statement.
But just getting the rule in place might not be enough, according to some advocates.
Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns at United Farm Workers, raised concerns that once the rule is in place, some workers could still be at risk of exploitation, especially since many farmworkers are undocumented and more likely to fear reprisal from their employers if they report violations.
“It’s common sense that an undocumented person is more easily exploited because they have a genuine and righteous fear ... that’s something that can be held over their heads,” she said.
The move toward a safety standard comes after a summer in which heat waves hit parts of he United States and global temperatures hit new highs. A deadly heat wave struck the Pacific Northwest in June, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said July was the hottest month the planet ever recorded.
Meanwhile, a major climate report from the United Nations predicted in August that, with global warming, there will be increases in the intensity and frequency of heat extremes.
“This year was pretty horrifying to watch the heat roll through these really vulnerable communities,” Strater said. “These workers are out there working and dying in heat to make sure you’ve got food in your climate-controlled kitchen.”