Extreme Heat: White House measures to protect workers are not enough. Bold action needed to address deadly risks!

1 Aug 2023

Extreme Heat:  White House measures to protect workers are not enough. Bold action needed to address deadly risks!

by Jessica E. Martinez and Marcy Goldstein-Gelb

 

The actions announced last week by President Biden to protect workers from extreme heat- including ramped up enforcement for heat safety violations and increased inspections in high-risk industries- are a modest step in the right direction.

Tragically, workers are getting sick and dying from the extreme heat driven by climate change. This is no time for modest steps. The President, Congress, federal OSHA and state and local officials must take bold action, now, to reduce risk and save lives.

We must urgently pursue decarbonizing our economy, with a fully-funded just transition to ensure job and income security for affected workers. But workers cannot wait while this process unfolds and we are not helpless in the face of the triple-digit temperatures that are breaking thermometers all over the globe.   Heat stroke and heat illness, like other occupational hazards, is preventable.

Practical, evidence-based measures including adequate rest breaks, plentiful fresh water, access to shade, reduced work schedules, moving work to cooler parts of the day, and a buddy system so no worker is left alone can and must be implemented now in every indoor and outdoor setting where extreme heat is present.  

There is no reason for employers to await the result of a regulatory process. There is definitely a reason not to wait: Absent preventive measures, more workers will become sick and die from exposure to extreme heat.  

In the regulatory arena, it is important to know that the currently existing “general duty” clause of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Act requires employers to provide a workplace free from known hazards, and that certainly includes the well-known hazard of extreme heat. President Biden is on solid ground when ordering increased enforcement and inspections in the face of the current heat emergency.

But this is an emergency, and much more can be done. Specific workplace safety standards, focused on the dangers of extreme heat, can offer more and better protection for workers, with a focus on training, abatement and enforcement.

 

To that end:

  • President Biden should order federal OSHA immediately to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to protect workers from heat stress. If workers dying after hours of laboring in the hot sun is not an emergency, what is?
  • Congress should also act immediately, and put into law a requirement that federal OSHA issue an interim standard on heat stress. This can complement and strengthen any emergency standard issued by the agency.
  • Federal OSHA has already begun the lengthy process of creating a permanent safety standard on heat stress, and this must be completed as rapidly as possible.
  • Currently only five out of 50 states have workplace safety rules to protect against exposure to extreme heat; Oregon is the only state which protects both indoor and outdoor workers.  
  • Workplace safety officials in all states should take immediate steps to make sure their state-level standards on heat stress have broad reach and strong protections.   The task is especially urgent in the 45 states with no current specific rules on workplace exposure to extreme heat. State-level standards can frequently be completed more quickly than federal rulemaking, and under terms of the federal OSH Act, must be least as strong- and can be stronger- than federal standards.      
  • Municipal officials can and should also consider local ordinances which require rest, shade, water and other measures for all affected workers in high-risk industries. In Miami, a campaign led by We Count (an affiliate of our organization, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health) has brought together hundreds of farmworkers to demand a municipal heat ordinance which will offer protection to some 80,000 agricultural and construction workers.

 

Incredibly, the state of Texas is moving in the opposite direction. City councils in Dallas and Austin have passed heat ordinances which require employers, among other things, to give construction workers ten-minute rest breaks every four hours during extreme heat conditions.  

But the Texas state legislature recently passed the so-called “Death Star” law, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott. It will overturn these and other ordinances passed by democratically-elected local officials. The new law goes into effect on September 1, at a time when temperatures will still be dangerously high in Texas.  

The city of Dallas passed its heat protection ordinance in 2015, following the preventable death of Roendy Granillo. The 25-year old construction worker died of heat stroke while installing hardwood floors on a site with no air conditioning during a heat wave in Texas in 2015; his body temperature was 110 degrees when he died.

At our National Conference on Worker Safety and Health in 2016, National COSH honored the Granillo family for their efforts to advocate for other workers following Roendy’s tragic death. The family was also featured in “Building the American Dream,” a film about the challenges facing immigrant families.  

Now is the time to honor, not ignore, what happened to Roendy Granillo,. And it’s time to fight for the millions of workers who build our   homes, bring food to our tables, and provide other essential goods and services. Record-breaking temperatures put those workers at risk right now. Our government, at all levels, must respond- right now.  

 

The authors are co-executive directors of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH).  (This piece also published at CommonDreams.org)