Working in Extreme Heat Is Dangerous. We Must Make It Safer

5 Sep 2023

Working in Extreme Heat Is Dangerous. We Must Make It Safer

Extreme heat is becoming more common across the U.S. The federal government and employers owe workers better safety measures

By Jessica E. Martinez, Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, Roger Kerson on September 4, 2023

At 6 A.M. on a sweltering Saturday in June 2021, Sebastian Francisco Perez began work at Ernst Farm and Nursery, south of Portland, Ore. A recent immigrant from Guatemala, Perez was installing irrigation pipes for trees used in home and business landscaping.

Temperatures soared to 107 degrees that day. Shortly after 3 p.m., Perez” co-workers found him collapsed and gasping for breath. He died from hyperthermia and dehydration.

Perez is one of several Oregon workers who died during a record-shattering heat dome, fueled by climate change, that settled across the Pacific Northwest. Nationwide, as many as 2,000 workers die each year from extreme heat, with an additional 170,000 heat-related incidents that lead to injuries and illnesses.

Yet only five states have specific safety standards to protect workers from the dangers of heat exposure; there is no federal standard. Extreme heat is becoming more common; millions of people in the U.S. have experienced record-breaking heatwaves this summer. Government at all levels must protecting the health and welfare of the public, including workers. But employers must also take measures to reduce the risk of heat-related illness or death for the people who work for them.

In July, President Biden announced ramped-up enforcement for heat safety violations and increased inspections in high-risk industries, but these modest steps are simply not adequate. We urgently need consistent, nationwide regulations, including a framework for abatement, enforcement and training. Easy access to rest, water and shade are well-documented measures that can reduce the risk of heat stroke.

To get these protections in place, our organization—the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) —is joining with workers, unions and safety advocates to call for rapid action by the U.S. Congress. A proposed new law will require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to create an interim heat stress standard within one year. OSHA must then carry out the longer and more laborious process of drafting a permanent standard. A federal heat standard was first proposed during the Nixon administration in 1972; now that high temperatures are far more widespread, it’s long past time to complete this vital task.

Currently, extreme heat hurts and kills because climate change’s effects include not only higher temperatures but also increased humidity. This interferes with the evaporation of sweat—the body’s natural cooling mechanism. Nighttime temperatures are also rising, making it more difficult to recover from long hours of daytime exposure.  

Symptoms of heat stress—such as dizziness, nausea and loss of balance—may come on suddenly. A person may already be very sick—or dead—by the time these indicators are noticeable. In addition, repeated exposure to strenuous work at high temperatures can lead to long-term illnesses, such as chronic heart and kidney disease.  

The burden of workplace health risks connected to climate change falls most severely on workers of color and immigrants. Among workers most affected, many are not U.S. citizens, labor in agriculture, construction, landscaping and warehousing, and work for employers much like Perez’s. During the Oregon OSHA investigation after Perez’s death, an Ernst Farms official “tried to argue … that the employee be accountable for how they push their body.” In fact, it is not safe for a worker to monitor his or her own health. No one should work alone during extreme heat conditions.

While drafting both an interim and permanent heat standard, federal regulators can build on the work done in the states that have already adopted such rules. In Oregon, shortly after Perez died, the state issued a temporary emergency heat safety standard and began work on a permanent rule. Safe Jobs Oregon, a National COSH affiliate, helped coordinate a broad coalition of labor, environmental and community groups to make sure that workers from all backgrounds could participate. This included Spanish-language listening sessions in the evening, and a telephone hotline where workers could leave comments for the official record in any language. The coalition also sought out testimony from academic experts in public health and workplace safety.

The result is the nation’s most comprehensive occupational heat standard, protecting both indoor and outdoor workers and including safety requirements when the combined heat and humidity index reaches certain thresholds. It requires employers to provide shade and water, scheduled breaks, worker and supervisor training, and an acclimatization plan so workers can slowly get used to working in high temperatures. According to federal OSHA, 50 to 70 percent of outdoor fatalities “occur in the first few days of working in warm or hot environments because the body needs to build a tolerance to the heat gradually over time.”

Efforts continue elsewhere. In Miami-Dade County, a proposed municipal ordinance would require employers to provide rest, water and shade as well as worker training and notice of workers’ rights in multiple languages, affecting some 80,000 construction and agricultural workers. The ordinance passed unanimously on first reading before the county commission, but the final shape of the rule is pending.

In the meantime, workers who toil in the heat have rights, regardless of their immigration status. Whether or not they are covered by a union contract, workers can join together to encourage their employers to improve working conditions. If an employer fails to respond, workers who experience job hazards can file a complaint with OSHA.

As has happened often in modern U.S. labor history, workers will have to drive change. This will not be easy. A sharp decline in union representation in the U.S.—driven by a degree of employer resistance to workplace democracy that is atypical among industrialized nations—makes it more difficult for workers to make their voices heard. Illegal retaliation is a concern for people who voice safety complaints, especially where immigration status can be exploited.

Other obstacles include exaggerated claims about the impact of commonsense safety measures. Adding rest breaks during hot days, for example, results in higher payroll costs for employers. But safer work conditions mean less injuries and illnesses, which translates into lower costs for workers’ compensation, health care, and time lost from work. California, for example, saw a 30 percent reduction in worker injuries after heat standards were adopted in 2005.

The legislative process itself can also be misused. Earlier this year, the Texas legislature passed a bill that would have overruled local laws in Austin and Dallas that allowed workers more protections when working in hot conditions. Recently, a judge in Travis County sided with Texas municipalities, ruling that the so-called “Death Star” bill violates the Texas constitution. An appeal is expected. Workers have every right to demand that both employers and the government respond forcefully to the dangers we now face—and to the ample evidence about how the human body reacts to extreme heat, and how science-based safety standards can reduce risk and save lives.  

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American. This article originally appeared here.