We Need Stronger Safety Standards for Extreme Heat

29 Aug 2023

We Need Stronger Safety Standards for Extreme Heat

For decades, U.S. workers, unions, workers’ centers and allies have found innovative ways to challenge corporate power. The reality of rising temperatures is a new test.

BY JESSICA E. MARTINEZ, MARCY GOLDSTEIN-GELB AUGUST 28, 2023 2:29 PM

Each year, as many as 2,000 U.S. workers die from extreme heat. There are an additional 170,000 heat-related incidents that result in injuries and illnesses. Exposure to high temperatures can place severe stress on the heart, lungs, and kidneys. And the ongoing effects of climate change make this well-known hazard even more perilous for those whom we honor on Labor Day.

The workers who build our houses and vehicles, put food on our tables, and deliver essential goods to homes and businesses deserve every possible protection.  

A few months ago, in the middle of what has been the hottest year on record, the United States Postal Service (USPS) office in Dallas changed shift start times from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. This took letter carriers off the street during a relatively cool morning hour, while adding a hotter one at the end of their day in the late afternoon.

At about 3 p.m. on June 20, Eugene Gates Jr., a sixty-six-year-old man and a thirty-six-year postal service veteran, collapsed and died while delivering mail in Dallas. The heat index that day was 117 degrees, a level identified as a danger zone by the National Weather Service. “That was his job,” Carla Gates, Eugene’s widow, told a local TV station. “And the heat got to him.”

After Gates died, USPS officials changed shift start times back to 7:30 a.m. for Texas postal workers—too late to save his life.  

When public or private employers fail to act, the government must step in. But just five U.S. states have specific safety standards that require employers to provide workers with protection against extreme heat. This leaves the vast majority of workers without such safeguards; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has yet to issue a nationwide standard.  

Workers can’tafford to wait. In August, Hawaii was hit by devastating wildfires, Louisiana declared a heat emergency, and tropical storms arrived as far west as California and as far east as Puerto Rico. It’s clear that extreme weather and extreme heat will be a fact of life for many years to come. That’s why workers and worker organizations are taking action to make sure that employers and government take the necessary steps to offer solid, evidence-based protections.  

In Oregon, for example, after several workers died during a 2021 heat wave, the state issued a temporary heat safety standard and began work on a permanent rule. Safe Jobs Oregon, a National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) affiliate, coordinated a broad coalition, insisting on including Spanish language listening sessions during evening hours, and a telephone hotline where workers could leave comments. The result is the nation’s most comprehensive occupational heat standard.  

In Florida—just a few weeks after farmworker Efraín López García collapsed and died on July 5 while picking fruit under the sun—hundreds of farmworkers who are members of We Count, another National COSH affiliate, attended a board of commissioners meeting in Miami Dade County. They demanded action on a municipal heat standard that will require employers to provide rest, water and shade as well as safety training for some 80,000 construction and agricultural workers. The ordinance passed unanimously on first reading, but the final shape of the rule is still to be determined.

While it’s important that states and cities take action, we also need forceful, nationwide rules to protect all workers in all workplaces.  

In July, President Joe Biden ramped up enforcement for heat safety violations and increased inspections in high-risk industries. These modest measures will not be enough in the face of thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of injuries and illnesses each year.  

Instead, workers, unions and safety advocates are calling for bold action: Congress must pass a new law requiring OSHA to implement an interim heat stress standard within one year’s time. This is an effective, timely way to get a consistent national standard on the books. An interim rule can stay in place while OSHA carries out the longer, more laborious process of  drafting a permanent standard.

For decades, U.S. workers, unions, workers’ centers and allies have found innovative ways to challenge corporate power. The reality of rising temperatures is a new test.  

Just as there is no “Planet B” where we can escape the impact of climate change, there is no path to safer workplaces that does not involve active, engaged workers using first-hand knowledge to improve their living standards and working conditions.

This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, a project of The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service. It originally appeared online here.