Calls Grow to Protect Workers From Extreme Heat

by Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

As the number of extreme heat days continues to rise, people working outside or in un-airconditioned buildings face increasing risks as there’s currently no federal standard protecting them from heat.

  • From 1992 to 2017, heat killed 815 workers and seriously injured 70,000 in the United States.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for protecting workers, but it has ignored recommendations from the CDC and calls from occupational and environmental groups to set a threshold for temperatures that are dangerous to work in. A POLITICO and E&E News investigation found that across the past nine administrations, “bureaucracy and lack of political will combining to continually kick the can down the road.”

Why This Matters: Extreme heat is the top weather-related killer in the U.S yet no national standard exists to protect workers. OSHA protections would hold employers responsible for ensuring basic work conditions help mitigate heat hazards for workers.

  • The CDC recommends providing rest and shade at increasingly frequent intervals as temperatures rise and giving people with preexisting health conditions less intense work when it’s very hot.
  • These measures can save lives—and with rising temperatures are essential.

As an example, in the next 30 years, Florida and Texas are projected to experience an extra month of days that feel hotter than 90 degrees. These two states have the largest population of construction workers.  

Workers are risking everything right now, and it could be preventable. We are talking about 10 to 15 minutes, something even a dog needs, to take a rest, take a breath, and hydrate,” construction worker Sharon Medina told POLITICO and E&E News.

Heating Up, Cooling Down: Taking stock of heat-related illnesses can be difficult due to incomplete medical records and the ways that heat can compound other health conditions. But it is clear that the overlap of high temperatures and physical labor is a dangerous combination. For instance, construction workers are 6% of the American workforce but 36% of all occupational heat-related deaths. 

As  POLITICO and E&E News write: “Laborers are particularly vulnerable to heat due to the strenuous nature of their work. Physical activity makes it difficult for the body to cool itself down, which gets dangerous when temperatures and humidity rise. The results of overheating can range from dizziness, nausea, vomiting and a fast heart rate to deadly heat stroke. Heat can exacerbate preexisting respiratory and heart conditions, and it can hit lower-income workers particularly hard if they’re less able to afford to run air conditioning on hot nights, straining their bodies during restless sleep.”

But indoor workers can face heat-related risks as well. As Vox explained,

  • More than 15 million people in the United States have jobs that require them to be outdoors at some point, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Extreme heat can impair safety and productivity, even indoors. Factories, warehouses, foundries, and kitchens can get dangerously hot in normal weather, and during a heat wave, it only gets harder to stay cool.

Where you are in the country matters, too: the South and Western parts of the country that are used to hotter temperatures and already have air conditioning infrastructure are better prepared than cities that still aren’t ready for higher average temperatures

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