Imagine the scorching sun at your back as a farm laborer or a construction worker outdoors in late summer, or being engulfed in punishing heat as a warehouse or kitchen staffer without access to air conditioning.
That’s the reality for essential workers across the U.S. Yet the country lacks a specific federal rule for protecting workers in dangerous heat conditions.
Such standards, which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began to consider last year, could offer better access to water, rest breaks, and shade, making otherwise tough working environments more tolerable — and more safe.
While Juley Fulcher, a worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen, a progressive group, said she’s glad OSHA is carrying out the rule-making process, it could be years before OSHA actually finalizes a federal standard, and the process could unravel if Republicans win the presidency in 2024.
Some workers argue they need help now.
“It’s these same folks who were out there during COVID, while we were all huddled in our apartments — these are often the same folks that are dealing with excessive heat,” Fulcher said. “Agriculture workers have the highest rate of death from heat. Construction workers overall have the highest number of people who die every year of heat.”
“‘Agriculture workers have the highest rate of death from heat. Construction workers overall have the highest number of people who die every year of heat.’”
— Juley Fulcher, a worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen
Beyond the nation’s farms and construction sites, workers in restaurants, commercial laundries, warehouses, delivery trucks, and more face similar risks as American summers get hotter and hotter. Right now, the western United States is engulfed in the kind of heatwave the country can expect to experience with greater frequency and more intensity amid worsening climate change. Temperatures in Sacramento hit 114 degrees Monday, while the California Bay Area city of Livermore also recorded punishing temperatures of 116 degrees.
(California, it should be noted, has its own heat-safety standard. Employers are supposed to “provide outdoor workers with fresh water, access to shade at 80 degrees and whenever requested by a worker, cool-down rest breaks in addition to regular breaks and maintain a written prevention plan with training on the signs of heat illness and what to do in case of an emergency,” according to a statement from Cal/OSHA, the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, issued last week.)
Already, environmental heat is “likely responsible” for 170,000 work-related injuries annually, and up to 2,000 worker deaths, according to Public Citizen’s “Boiling Point” report, which was written by Fulcher and published earlier this summer. Endangered workers, the report said, are disproportionately Hispanic/Latino or Black.
“For example, while Latinx workers make up 17.6% of the entire workforce, they make up 65% of farm laborers, graders, and sorters, and crop workers die from heat stress at a rate 20 times greater than the rest of the U.S. workforce,” organizations including Public Citizen wrote in a letter to members of Congress last year. “More than 46% of laborers and freight, stock, and materials movers are Black and Hispanic/Latinx, as are more than 52% of laundry and dry-cleaning workers, 52% of cooks, and 58% of those working in warehouses and storage.”
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