Equilibrium & Sustainability

Federal heat protections could prevent 50,000 injuries per year: report

Federal heat-safety protections could save tens of thousands of American workers from injury each year, a new report has found.

The report that consumer advocacy nonprofit Public Citizen published Thursday found excessive heat exposure leads to as many as 2,000 worker deaths every year.

Almost half of those deaths happen in a worker’s first day on the job, according to federal statistics.

The Public Citizen report found heat exposure also leads to as many as 170,000 yearly heat-stress injuries.

Heat is expensive both in terms of lost lives and lost time, as well. The cost of heat-related injuries — in workers’ compensation, lawsuits, lost time and turnover — is nearly $100 billion annually.

But heat is often overlooked amid flashier climate change disasters, such as hurricanes, floods and wildfires.

In large part, that’s because it does no damage to real estate, and its impacts are heavily concentrated among the poor, said Ladd Keith, who studies urban planning and climate change at the University of Arizona, to The Hill.

“Heat is the No. 1 weather-related killer in the United States — and we’re getting growing evidence that heat is as detrimental, if not more detrimental than those other more ‘classic’ climate risks,” Keith said.

“But from a governance perspective, we don’t have the institutional structures in place to plan to deal with it in the way that we have local floodplain departments across the United States, or forest managers and fire managers dealing with wildfires.”

The number of injuries could be slashed by about a third — if the federal government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets a stringent heat standard to protect workers, the Public Citizen report found.

In February, seven Democratic attorneys general called on OSHA to develop a rule to protect workers from heat, The Hill reported.

“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 wrote in that letter.

Those damages aren’t evenly distributed: The lowest-paid 20 percent of workers suffer five times the rate of injury as the highest-paid, with Latino workers three times as likely to die of heat exposure as non-Latinos.

And farmworkers — the foundation of the American food system — die of heat stress at 35 times the rate of other occupations.

OSHA offers copious advice for how to keep workers safe in heat waves — like giving new hires time to slowly adapt to heat and guaranteeing water and rest breaks for all workers — but these are not legally binding.

While OSHA can sanction workplaces for “general” safety failures, last year only 1 percent of such actions were for exposure to heat risk, The Hill reported. 


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