The official start of summer—the June 21 solstice—is still weeks away, yet for many parts of the northern hemisphere unusually high temperatures are already providing a taste of what’s to come. American heat records were set from Texas to Massachusetts over the weekend, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicting a hotter-than-usual June, July, and August. While many of us can seek refuge from the heat by turning on the AC or going to the local community pool, outdoor workers—like farm laborers, garbage collectors, construction workers, and air conditioner mechanics—are likely to bear the brunt. These essential workers have some of the least protections when it comes to workplace heat.
According to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last week, extreme heat events are associated with higher overall adult death rates across the U.S. Outdoor workers are particularly at risk. Between 1992 and 2017, heat stress injuries killed 815 U.S. laborers and seriously injured more than 70,000, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Another study published last year by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that if fossil fuel emissions are not significantly reduced, there will be “staggering increases in unsafe workdays” by 2050, particularly for outdoor workers, with a potential cumulative loss of $55.4 billion in earnings annually. Yet heat protection standards at worksites in the U.S. are piecemeal, outdated, and inadequate, if they exist at all—and in most states, they don’t. But as climate change drives temperatures even higher, making intense heat waves more likely, that may be starting to change.
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Only four states currently have outdoor workplace heat standards: California, Colorado (for agricultural workers only), Oregon, and Washington. Last September, President Joe Biden announced a new initiative to address the impact of extreme heat on American labor and asked OSHA to set new federal heat protection standards that would apply to the approximately 32 million people who work outdoors. While it could take years for new rules to be implemented, on May 3 OSHA held its first stakeholder meeting, inviting public comment. Workers shared stories of passing out from the heat, of not being allowed to take breaks, and of not getting enough water. “I want important people to know that this is our reality,” one farmworker commented. “Our people are getting sick. We are thirsty. And no one seems to care.”
The human body can only withstand a limited range of temperatures before it begins to break down. High heat triggers a series of emergency protocols in the body designed to protect vital functions while sacrificing everything else. First, blood flow to the skin increases, putting a strain on the heart. The brain tells the muscles to slow down, causing fatigue. Nerve cells misfire, leading to headache and nausea—the first signs of heat exhaustion. If the core temperature continues to rise past 104-105°F (40-41°C), organs start shutting down and cells deteriorate, leading to kidney failure, blood poisoning, and ultimately death. When heat is combined with humidity, which is likely to increase along with climate change in many areas, the risk of overheating is even more pronounced as the body loses its ability to self-cool through perspiration.
Preventing heat exhaustion, heat stress, and ultimately heat stroke, is relatively simple: rest, find shade, and hydrate. Those remedies, however, are not always easy to find, or to ask for, on a work site, particularly for workers from marginalized groups who fear putting their jobs or their paychecks on the line. Per OSHA’s general duty clause, employers are supposed to ensure that workers are safe from “recognized hazards,” but the rule is neither heat specific nor regularly enforced. When OSHA does cite an employer for inadequate protection, it is usually only after workers have been hospitalized or died from heat exposure.
The current small patchwork of state-level rules not only leaves millions of U.S. workers unprotected but it also creates unnecessary confusion for employers working across multiple states, says Juanita Constible, the senior advocate for climate and health at the New York-based environmental organization Natural Resources Defense Council. Constible says OSHA needs to expand and enforce standards that include: whistleblower protections; a requirement for employers to provide workers with water, rest breaks, and shade; establish heat acclimatization plans for new and returning workers; conduct heat stress prevention training for managers and employees; and set up a detailed plan for dealing with heat-health emergencies.
Some industries are pushing back against the administration’s efforts to improve outdoor work conditions, arguing that establishing nationwide standards for locally defined heat hazards will be costly and impractical. But to Erick Bandala Gonzalez, an environmental scientist at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas, providing those kinds of worker protections is just common sense: “Heat protection regulations save money and lives.” Gonzales is the lead author on a new study published on May 11 in the International Journal of Environmental Science and Technology that looks at the growing threat of extreme heat on outdoor workforce health in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix— three of the hottest cities in North America. He found not just a strong correlation between high temperatures and heat illnesses, but also an increase in workplace injuries. “For outdoor workers, extreme heat poses extreme danger,” says Gonzalez. But as long as temperatures keep rising, and outdoor labor is necessary, “we have no choice but to create some adaptation strategies. That means protecting the workers and protecting them as soon as possible.”