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labor Workers Need New Heat Protections Immediately

The Biden administration has proposed a desperately needed new heat standard to protect workers from scorching temperatures. Expect business groups to oppose it.

A construction worker pours water on his face to cool off as he digs a sanitation pipe ditch during a heat wave on August 4, 2022, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. ,(Mark Makela / Getty Images)

Another summer, another record-breaking heat wave. The National Weather Service has issued excessive heat warnings for California, urging residents to stay out of the sun, drink fluids, and check on neighbors throughout the week. Meteorologists have their eyes on Death Valley National Park, the site of the highest temperature ever reliably recorded on Earth — 130 degrees Fahrenheit, in 2020 and again in 2021 — to see if this week’s scorcher will offer a new record. Last month, a heat wave on the East Coast broke dozens of local records.

Climate change means extreme heat events happen with greater frequency. That’s a dangerous development, as they are the deadliest weather-related events in the United States, causing more deaths than floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes combined. Last year was the hottest in recorded history, and it killed at least 2,300 people, with the real number likely much higher since extreme heat exacerbates other health issues that are often cited as a person’s cause of death.

Yet even as extreme temperatures require that people take it easy, many workers’ shifts go on as usual. Workers have little recourse for such employer endangerment, and the results are deadly. Stories abound with ever-greater frequency of workers dying on the job during hot days. No matter how young or healthy one might be, extreme heat kills, with the predictability of such deaths making them all the more damning.

In response to the mounting crisis of heat-related workplace deaths, President Joe Biden has proposed the first-ever federal heat standard. The long-awaited new regulation from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would mandate a host of changes for employers: “identifying heat hazards, developing heat illness and emergency response plans, providing training to employees and supervisors, and implementing work practice standards — including rest breaks, access to shade and water, and heat acclimatization for new employees.”

“Workers all over the country are passing out, suffering heat stroke and dying from heat exposure from just doing their jobs, and something must be done to protect them,” Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Douglas L. Parker said of the new standard. “Today’s proposal is an important next step in the process to receive public input to craft a ‘win-win’ final rule that protects workers while being practical and workable for employers.”

If implemented, the rule would establish a heat index of 80 degrees Fahrenheit as an initial heat trigger. When the workplace reaches that temperature, employers would be required to provide the new work-practice standards like drinking water and rest breaks. Should a workplace reach a heat index of 90 degrees Fahrenheit, employers would have to give workers a minimum fifteen-minute paid rest break at least every two hours. The rule would also require them to take immediate action to help a worker experiencing signs and symptoms of a heat emergency. Employers who fail to meet the standard could face fines of more than $16,000 depending on the violation, a senior administration official told the New York Times.

According to the White House, the rule would affect some thirty-six million workers, indoor as well as outdoor. While it has long been clear that outdoor workers, such as those who work in agriculture, landscaping, or construction, are vulnerable to extreme weather, indoor workers have been organizing in recent years to bring attention to the risks they face too.

Amazon workers in particular, until recently abandoned by elected officials and organized labor alike, have taken matters into their own hands in sprawling warehouses where the temperature can exceed that of the outdoors. Amazonians United, a minority union that operates in a handful of the company’s warehouses, has forced the company to make more water available for warehouse workers, a victory that soon led the company to bolster its provision of water nationwide. A survey conducted last year by Inland Empire Amazon Workers United found that workers want more access to drinking water, a cool place to rest, and recovery time during heat waves.

Amazon is no outlier. A recent report from Oxfam shows that at Walmart, the country’s largest private employer with some 1.6 million people on the payroll domestically, heat-related issues are worse. While 41 percent of Amazon workers surveyed by the organization said that they had experienced some level of dehydration over the past three months, a shocking 91 percent of Walmart workers had experienced dehydration.

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On the West Coast, fast-food workers have been staging limited strikes in response to boiling hot workplace conditions. Last month, employees at a Taco Bell in San Jose walked off the job over what they deemed unsafe conditions, alleging that temperatures in their location can exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit and that their boss failed to fix the store’s broken air conditioner. Starbucks workers, newly energized by their nationwide union-organizing drive, have likewise struck locations over broken air conditioning during recent heat waves.

The minority of workers who do have unions have made heat protections a priority too. The 340,000 Teamsters who work at UPS recently forced the logistics giant to equip its fleet of signature brown vehicles with air conditioning, a long-standing demand made all the more pressing after several UPS workers died on the job while delivering packages on hot days.

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) mandates employers follow a heat standard to protect their outdoor workers from heat illness, but that standard exempts indoor workers (California is one of only five states with such protections, though New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts are considering their own mandates). Last week, Cal/OSHA adopted a standard that includes those workers, though it has not yet been implemented. Notably, that new standard exempts prison laborers from protections, a carve-out likely to be repeated in rulemaking elsewhere, including at the federal level.

That’s if it’s implemented as proposed. But the proposed rule will now be subject to comment and review period, which is sure to entail challenges from business groups arguing that the proposed rule is too expensive and onerous. As is so often the case when the state takes any action, no matter how minimal, to protect workers, capital will fight tooth and nail to scuttle the mandate.

As the New York Times notes, industry groups “have indicated they intend to challenge the legality of the rule as soon as it is implemented, possibly late this year.” (As to the tack employers will take, the newspaper quotes Marc Freedman, a vice president at the US Chamber of Commerce, the country’s largest business lobbying group, who wrote that “it is extraordinarily difficult for [employers] to determine when heat presents a hazard because each employee experiences heat differently.”) Congress should codify the new protections into law, but with so many legislators captured by business interests, the odds of such a move are slim.

That doesn’t mean the proposed standard won’t be implemented as is, but it does mean that workers shouldn’t hold their breath for the possibility that a deeply underfunded OSHA will keep them safe. In much of the country, workplaces are scorching. Only standing together, refusing unsafe working conditions, and getting protections in writing at the bargaining table will ensure we don’t lose more of our fellow human beings to the heat.


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Alex N. Press is a staff writer at Jacobin who covers labor organizing.

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