As Cole Porter crooned in 1948, “It’s too darn hot.”
California and other parts of the American West are heading into another week of excessive heat that not only threatens public health and safety but also power shortages, which would cut millions off from the energy they need to fuel their lives.
Workers, particularly those who work outdoors, are at special risk. Many are now forced to make the impossible choice between protecting their lives or their livelihoods.
Indeed, heat stress and other heat-related illnesses can cause heat exhaustion, stroke, and even death. More than 65,000 people visit the emergency room for heat-related stress a year, and about 700 die from heat exposure, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). Between 1992 and 2017, heat stress injuries killed 815 U.S. workers and seriously injured more than 70,000, the CDC found.
Farmworkers and construction workers suffer the highest incidence of heat illness. By the end of the century, U.S. farmworkers will work an average of 62 days in unsafe conditions, studies show.
Falling Down on the Job
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) — the federal agency charged with ensuring healthy and safe working conditions for all Americans — has failed for years to adopt a heat standard to protect these workers.
States are falling down on the job too. Twenty-two run their own OSHA-approved workplace health and safety programs — but only three have adopted their own heat standard.
In 2015, California implemented a Heat Illness Prevention Standard, which requires employers to provide training, water, shade, and planning. A temperature of 80°F triggers the requirements.
And Washington state enacted an Outdoor Heat Exposure Rule. The requirement to act is set when temperatures are at or above 89 degrees Fahrenheit. The emergency heat rules combined with existing rules require employers to:
Provide enough sufficiently cool water available for each employee to drink at least a quart an hour;
Provide sufficient shade that is large enough for and close enough to workers;
Encourage and allow workers to take paid preventative cool-down breaks as needed; and
Require a 10-minute, paid cool-down break every two hours.
A few cities — but far too few — have also acted to protect workers.
In 2011, a Central Texas municipality in Central Texas implemented a heat-related illness prevention program for outdoor municipal workers. Afterward, the number of heat-related illnesses decreased City workers’ compensation costs for heat-related illnesses also decreased by 50 percent.
We are all discomforted by the many more very hot days that the country is experiencing, but we are not all at risk of health stress or stroke when we go to work.
Outdoor workers cannot wait any longer. Our climate is changing, getting hotter by the day.
Without any sign that OSHA will act any time soon, Congress must require the agency to do what it should have done previously — but it too not acting fast enough.
Last year, lawmakers introduced legislation that would require OSHA to establish an enforceable standard to protect workers. It would ensure workers have paid breaks in cool spaces, access to water, limitations on time exposed to heat, and emergency response for workers with heat-related illness.
The U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor approved the bill in July, but the full House has yet to vote on it —and only 16 lawmakers have signed on as cosponsors. A similar bill was introduced last year in the U.S. Senate, but that chamber has yet to act.
Now is the time for action, before this Congress comes to a close — and potentially changes hands. For endangered workers, “It’s too darn hot” to go without protections.