Nearly 100 million Americans endured scorching temperatures this summer, and similar heat waves and other extreme weather are on track to occur more frequently across the country due to climate change.
Climate change poses a serious threat to occupational health and safety. Workers — especially low-income workers and those who work outdoors — are particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures and increasingly frequent extreme weather and other climate-related disasters.
Workers’ ability to adapt to or escape the effects of climate change is constrained by their jobs and employers. Workers are being forced to choose between their safety and their livelihoods. This means workers are more likely to suffer long-lasting financial problems as a result of extreme weather events, further limiting their choices.
Working in extreme heat
Workers in agriculture, construction, transportation, and manufacturing are often exposed to extreme heat and are most at risk of heat stress-related injury and fatality. Workers who toil in extreme heat are at risk of heat stress and heat stroke. Heat stroke occurs when the body’s temperature rises rapidly, and it can cause permanent disability or even death if the individual does not receive emergency treatment.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that 259 workers died from exposure to extreme heat between 2016 and 2020 and thousands more suffered serious heat-related injuries. Those numbers are likely much lower than the reality because BLS almost exclusively relies on companies to voluntarily report worker fatalities. A report from Public Citizen, for example, found that heat exposure is likely responsible for upward of 2,000 worker deaths each year.
Farmworkers die from heat stroke at a rate 20 times greater than the rate for all U.S. civilian workers. Currently, agricultural workers experience an average of 21 days a year when the heat index surpasses workplace safety standards; by 2050, the number of unsafe work days is expected to nearly double to 39 days each year. Workers who are paid based on how much crop they harvest face financial incentives to skip breaks to rest and hydrate, and many states don’t enforce break and hydration standards where they exist.
The occupational hazards posed by climate change disproportionately affect workers of color. Black and Latino workers bear the brunt of heat-related occupational risks because they are overrepresented in outdoor jobs like agriculture and construction. Since 2010, Hispanic workers have accounted for a third of all heat fatalities, despite making up only 17 percent of the U.S. workforce.
The health risks associated with climate-related hazards in the workplace are exacerbated for low-income workers, often through inadequate housing or transportation. For example, inadequate housing can include people who are unhoused, live in overcrowded shelters or in migrant housing provided by their employer, who are incarcerated, or live in uninhabitable conditions because of landlord neglect. Inadequate transportation can refer to walking long distances in extreme heat, long outdoor wait times for public transportation, and more.
No worker should die from heat
Heat stress and heat stroke are preventable diseases when adequate workplace regulations are enforced. Currently, however, there is no national standard regulating extreme heat in the workplace.
For years, worker safety advocates have been calling on the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to implement standards for hazardous heat conditions. In October 2021, OSHA finally initiated the rulemaking process to develop a standard for heat injury and illness prevention at work. Implementing a final standard, however, could take years — it takes OSHA an average of seven years, and as long as 19 years, to develop and issue safety standards. In the face of climate change, this is time workers don’t have.
The agency is also facing intense opposition from industries that would be affected by a national heat safety standard, hampering the rulemaking process. Advocates worry that if OSHA does not establish a standard by 2024, the issue will be abandoned if the White House changes hands, and it could be years before the agency returns attention to the problem.
Rep. Judy Chu’s (D-Cal.) Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act of 2021 would address some of these concerns and difficulties by establishing a two-year deadline for OSHA to promulgate a standard to prevent excessive heat exposure at work. The bill is named after a worker who died from heat stroke after working for 10 straight hours in 105-degree heat. If this legislation passes, it would emphasize the urgency around extreme heat and ramp up pressure on OSHA to establish enforceable standards.
Although a heat safety standard may be years away, OSHA announced a National Emphasis Program in April 2022 that outlines targeted enforcement policies to minimize heat-related injury and death. As part of the program, OSHA will proactively inspect workplaces in 70 high-risk industries when the National Weather Service announces a heat warning for the area. These policies are authorized under OSHA’s authority to ensure workers have a hazard-free workplace.
As temperatures continue to rise across the country, more workers will die from extreme heat. It is more important than ever for OSHA to establish an enforceable heat safety standard to eliminate entirely preventable heat-related fatalities.