Climate Change

As the planet warms, heat-related workplace protections in the US lag behind

At least 600 US workers die annually from heat-related illnesses; what can employers do to prevent these unnecessary deaths?
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photos: Getty Images

· 6 min read

In June 2008, 500 farmworkers marched 50 miles from just outside of Stockton, California, to Sacramento, carrying two empty wooden coffins. 

The coffins represented the lost lives of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez and her unborn child. Jimenez, an undocumented teenage farmworker, died earlier that month from heat exhaustion after working outdoors in 95-degree heat, NPR reported. Her death drew fury and grief from workers and allies over what they perceived to be a lack of protection for those laboring in extreme heat. A spokesperson for the California Farm Bureau told NPR at the time that the existing regulations were “absolutely adequate” when applied correctly.

Fourteen years later, in a climate that’s only getting hotter, workers’ rights advocates continue to metaphorically carry the coffins of those lost to heat death. Even more carry the weight of heat-related workplace injuries.

A report released last week by Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, found that environmental heat is “likely responsible for 170,000 work-related injuries every year, and possibly many more.” The New York Times reported that heat-related workplace injuries are often vastly undercounted. Heat exposure, the report said, is one of the top three occupational causes of death, killing between 600 and 2,000 workers annually. Though the most vulnerable are those who work in hot outdoor environments, Juley Fulcher, author of the Public Citizen report, told HR Brew that manufacturing, warehouse, and commercial-laundry employees can also be at high risk.

Advocates have called for increased federal and state workplace heat standards, and have achieved some success. Last fall, President Biden made heat a priority for OSHA and directed the agency to create a federal heat standard. However, further progress will likely slow to a trickle. David Michaels, former assistant secretary of labor at OSHA, told Marketplace last month that “OSHA won’t get a standard out for several years at best.”

So why has there been seemingly little progress on federal heat protections for workers since the California farmworkers marched for Jimenez in 2008? Can’t OSHA just impose and enforce stricter guidelines?

Fulcher said it’s “an easy question,” but there’s “never an easy answer.”

As the days get hotter this summer, here’s what HR needs to know about the state of the law.

Slow burn

The calls for regulation predate 2008. The National Institute for Health and Safety (NIOSH) first published criteria for a federal heat standard in 1972. The institute updated its proposal in 1986 and again in 2016. OSHA didn’t follow NIOSH’s recommendations; Fulcher claims it’s because the agency had other priorities.

In Fulcher’s opinion, the “real issue” blocking OSHA’s progress boiled down to matters of “personnel, power, and priorities.”

It’s no secret that OSHA is constantly understaffed and underfunded. In the 2010s, the agency was pursuing a beryllium standard. According to Fulcher, OSHA didn’t have the “wherewithal [or] the people” to take on heat at the same time.

In 2012, OSHA denied Public Citizen’s 2011 petition for an emergency temporary standard on “heat stress.” In the letter announcing OSHA’s decision, David Michaels wrote that heat most likely would not legally qualify as a “grave” danger. In 2011, the agency did announce a voluntary employer education program, but, according to reporting from NPR, the program didn’t pack much of a punch. In the program’s inaugural year, heat-related workplace deaths hit an “all-time high.”

A patchwork of policies

With global temperatures continuing to rise as a result of the climate crisis, the Biden administration’s OSHA has prioritized the issue. Last October, OSHA announced it would create a federal heat standard and immediately increase inspections when the heat index exceeds 80 degrees. In April, OSHA formalized the goals and criteria for such inspections in a National Emphasis Program, which went into effect immediately and will be in place for the next three years “unless canceled or superseded by another directive.”

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As for the full standard, Fulcher explained why Michaels predicted it could take time to develop. She said the average rule-making process takes between seven and nine years, and some have dragged on for 19 years.

Some of the 22 states with OSHA-approved state plans have taken matters into their own hands, adopting emergency rules or official heat standards. Some western states, including California, Washington, and Oregon, have passed heat standards that require employers to do things like educate staff and supervisors about the signs of heat exhaustion, post notices about the laws in English and Spanish in common areas, and require shade and rest breaks in cases of extreme heat. (Some business owners in Oregon have sued over the new rules, alleging that the requirements are “too vague to be fairly enforced” and that a provision to pay workers during heat breaks is an overstep of state authority.) Maryland, Nevada, and Colorado lawmakers have tasked state agencies with creating similar standards.

Beat the heat

SHRM recommends that HR professionals issue reminders to drink water regularly, take breaks frequently, and, to the extent possible, limit heat exposure.

The state of Washington goes further, adding that when the temp tops 89 degrees, employers should provide workers with “at least a quart an hour” of cool drinking water and “sufficient shade that is large enough and close enough” for the required 10-minute cool-down breaks every two hours.

Fulcher said research shows that slowing down the pace of work is important. OSHA recommends shortened hours for workers’ first weeks on the job to allow their bodies to acclimate and reduce the risk of heat-related illness.

Heat-safety standards can save lives. The Public Citizen report estimated that California’s heat standard reduced injuries by 30%. If such policies were adopted nationwide, the report argued that 50,000 fewer injuries and illnesses could occur per year.SV

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SusannaVogel1 on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Susanna for her number on Signal.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.