New House Bill a Game Changer for Protecting Workers from Extreme Heat

Katie Tracy

July 11, 2019

Asunción Valdivia, a 53-year old father and farmworker at a Giumarra vineyard in California, died after laboring to pick grapes for ten straight hours in 105-degree heat. When he collapsed, his employer told Valdivia’s son, Luis, who was also working in the field, to drive him to the hospital, but Valdivia died before they arrived.

In Valdivia’s memory, on July 10, Reps. Judy Chu and Raúl Grijalva paved the way to protecting outdoor and indoor workers across the nation from extreme heat by introducing the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act (H.R. 3668).

Valdivia is among 815 workers who died on the job because of extreme heat between 1992 and 2017, based on cases documented by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Tens of thousands more workers have suffered illnesses and injuries from exposure to excessive heat. Extreme heat poses the greatest risk to outdoor workers, such as those in agriculture and construction, but it also affects indoor workers, such as in the warehousing industry (e.g., Amazon). And the toll of deaths and injuries is continuing to climb as the climate crisis brings higher temperatures and humidity.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is well aware that extreme heat poses a significant risk to workers. In fact, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) first recommended OSHA adopt a standard to protect workers from heat more than 40 years ago in 1972. NIOSH has updated its recommendations twice, in 1986 and again in 2016. Yet OSHA has remained unwilling to develop safeguards, even denying a rulemaking petition by Public Citizen and other public interest groups in 2011 and failing to reply to a new petition filed in 2018 on behalf of more than 125 organizations, including the Center for Progressive Reform.

The new legislation mandates that OSHA adopt a nationwide standard to safeguard indoor and outdoor workers from excessive heat within 42 months of the bill’s enactment. If OSHA fails to propose a standard within two years, the bill requires the agency to adopt an interim final standard while it works to develop a permanent one. OSHA’s final heat standard must take NIOSH’s 2016 recommendations into consideration and include, at a minimum, the following:

  • Exposure limits that, once reached, mandate an employer to protect workers by providing them access to drinking water along with scheduled and paid rest breaks in the shade
  • Procedures for compensating piece rate workers for heat-related rest breaks
  • An acclimatization plan for gradually introducing new employees and employees returning from days away from work to the heat so that their bodies can adjust over time
  • Mandatory training for employers and supervisors
  • Requirements for engineering controls, administrative controls, and/or personal protective equipment, applying industrial hygiene principles of the hierarchy of controls
  • Requirements for exposure monitoring, medical monitoring, and heat-related surveillance recordkeeping
  • An emergency medical response plan for handling illnesses or injuries that occur on the job site
  • Whistleblower protections for workers who raise concerns about extreme heat conditions or exercise any of their rights provided by this law

To learn more about this new bill, tune in on July 11 at 10:15 a.m. Eastern time for a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, "From the Fields to the Factories: Preventing Workplace Injury and Death from Excessive Heat."

Read More by Katie Tracy
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