This is the first in a series featuring those featured in The Octopus in the Parking Garage, a new book about climate resilience by Center for Progressive Reform President Rob Verchick. Read the first post in the series.
Nevada is considered one of the hottest states in America, and it consistently tops the list of places with the most heat-related deaths per year in the country. But what a lot of people don’t know is that it is also the second most polluted state, with wildfires, vehicles, factories, and the mining industry being the biggest sources.
The deadly combination of scorching heat and poor air quality makes Nevada a hazardous place to work, especially for migrants who work under the heat of the sun. Even those working indoors are exposed to poor air quality with no climate controls every single day.
Experts have warned that working in extreme heat and poor air quality conditions can result in heat stroke, heat exhaustion, headaches, fatigue. Such conditions can also worsen existing chronic illnesses, such as cardiovascular and kidney diseases and diabetes-related illnesses, as well as acute health events like asthma attacks and heart attacks.
According to the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Nevada OSHA), at least seven workers died due to excessive environmental heat exposure between 2016 to 2021. Throughout the country, the death toll from heat-related workplace fatalities was 907 between 1992 to 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). There were also 31,560 reported work-related heat injuries and illnesses between 2011 and 2019 nationwide.
Underreported Heat-Related Deaths
Experts say these numbers could be higher because some heat-related deaths are either misreported or underreported by negligent employers. Another factor in the disparity in the numbers is that heat is often not recognized as a reporting criteria, especially in cases where the victim had a pre-existing condition like heart disease. Some workers do not want to report these cases due to the fear of job loss and deportation.
Extreme heat disproportionately affects people of color across a wide range of sectors and industries. Outdoor workers are often described as those working in agriculture and construction, and they have the highest rate of heat-related illnesses. But it is also important to note that even journalists and production crews for festivals and other public events, among others, are exposed to heat-related hazards on the job.
Interestingly, in the state of Nevada, most of the complaints received by the state OSHA were from indoor workplaces like casino hotels and restaurants. This shows that workers in hotels, restaurants, warehouses, schools, and other poorly ventilated workplaces are also facing serious health risks. Nevada OSHA receives an average of 133 heat stress complaints from workers per year.
Indeed, extreme heat is killing our workers and as temperatures continue to rise due to climate change, the number of heat-related deaths is also expected to go up. The reality, though, is that these deaths can be prevented if proper safety measures are put in place. Unfortunately, there are still no federal standards to protect workers from heat hazards.
President Joe Biden has directed federal OSHA to begin working on a national standard, but this could take up to seven years or more to be completed. We cannot just sit back and wait for that to happen. We have to move with far more urgency because lives are at risk.
This is why Nevada, with the help of some lawmakers and the Nevada Environmental Justice Coalition (NEJC), is now pushing to constitutionalize permanent protections for workers in the state.
Senate Bill 427, the Extreme Weather Working Conditions Bill, was formally introduced in the state Senate on March 27 to protect migrant workers from extreme heat and air pollution. The bill revises existing the state’s occupational safety and health law to include specific programs and training for vulnerable workers. Under the bill, excessive heat is defined as 95 degrees Fahrenheit and above, while poor air quality is set at an index value of 201 and higher.
Specific measures included in the bill are:
- Requiring one quart of water per employee per hour of work for hydration.
- Enforcing required breaks for employees working under extreme conditions.
- Providing proper respiratory protection for each worker.
- Training and monitoring employees for signs of heat-related illnesses, as well as proper training for responding to such situations.
Predictably, industry opposes the legislation, particularly the Metro Chamber, the Nevada Trucking and Construction Association, and more. Their main argument is money and that they do not need to spend extra for their workers. But we say, human life is invaluable! There is nothing in the bill that says employees must stop working once it gets really hot in the workplace. We simply want to make sure that people are able to do their jobs, but in a safe manner that doesn’t put their health and lives in danger.
The NEJC has always stated that outdoor worker protection is an environmental justice issue because the majority, if not all, vulnerable workers and victims of heat-related illnesses and deaths are people of color. One interesting fact is that a lot of communities of color in Nevada, or anywhere in the country, pollute less, but we bear the brunt of its impact most of the time.
When NEJC talks to communities, people don’t seem to see the issue of climate change as something worrisome. They do not yet see the connection of climate change to their health and how it is something that affects their daily lives. But the reality is, climate change is here now, and it is already affecting all of us.
Time is of the essence. We need all the support we can get to make this landmark legislation a reality for our vulnerable indoor and outdoor workers in Nevada.
To learn more about how to protect workers from extreme heat and adapt workplaces and other systems to climate change, I encourage you to read The Octopus in the Parking Garage, a new book from my colleague and Center for Progressive Reform Board President Rob Verchick.