Climate

If it’s 100 degrees out, does your boss have to give you a break? Probably not.

Cutchogue, N.Y.: Farm worker Pedro Alejandro Deleon wipes his face of sweat while working on stringing up tomato plants at Wickham’s Fruit Farm, in Cutchogue, New York, on July 20, 2022. (Photo by Steve Pfost/Newsday RM via Getty Images)

It’s a hard time to be someone who works in the heat.

Regions of the US are in the midst of record-breaking high temperatures, brought to us by a heat dome covering parts of the Midwest and Northeast. This week, approximately 270 million people will have experienced temperatures of 90 degrees or more.

It’s an unforgiving start to a summer that projections show could be the hottest on record. Exposure to extreme heat can be deadly — around 1,200 Americans die from it every year (a number that’s likely severely undercounted), making extreme heat perhaps one of the deadliest of all weather events in the US. And even when heat doesn’t kill or hospitalize people outright, it can silently harm our physical and mental health through straining the heart and altering our behavior around risks.

The National Weather Service recommends people spend time in air-conditioned spaces, shade, and to consistently hydrate during intense heat waves. But for more than 30 million workers whose job requires them to work outdoors, like farmworkers or construction workers, those NWS recommendations aren’t often accessible, let alone guaranteed, on the job. The very nature of their work leaves them as much as 35 times more at risk of dying from heat exposure than the general public. And heat waves like this one are expected to increase in frequency thanks to climate change.

Lulu Guerrero, an undocumented farmworker in Colorado, told Vox she has fainted twice from the heat — once last year and once the year prior. “Two years ago, the temperature was about 105 degrees,” she said in Spanish. “It’s very difficult for us, because we still have to keep working to earn money, because of the needs we have. These are the experiences working in the fields leave you with — sometimes beautiful, sometimes very hard.”

It’s not just outdoor work that puts people at risk of heat injury or death. Some indoor workers, like airplane cabin cleaners or kitchen cooks, also experience scorching temperatures in their line of work, as confined spaces and proximity to ovens without AC can cause a person to overheat.

How one perceives and responds to heat varies from person to person, but the Occupational Health and Safety Administration says that a wet bulb temperature (a more accurate method of understanding heat risk by measuring temperature, humidity, and sunlight) of 77 degrees or more can make strenuous work unsafe. From 2011 to 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 436 workplace deaths due to heat exposure, and from 2010 to 2020, almost 34,000 workers suffered a heat-related injury that required time away from their job. OSHA has pointed out that it’s likely that these numbers are also a vast undercount.

We know how dangerous heat can be, and we know that danger is likely to amplify with each summer, yet there’s no federal protection for workers against heat.

But that might change soon.

In 2021, after years of worker activism on the issue, OSHA began the process of developing a ruling on a heat workplace standard, with the aim to reduce heat-related injuries and death on the job. This standard would create a set of obligations that employers must comply with to protect their workers from heat. It generally takes about seven years for OSHA to publish a final ruling. Right now, the proposed rule is under review in the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs — but there’s no telling when it will review the proposed rule, or what the exact text of the proposed rule says.

OSHA might face some resistance, though. Historically, some employers and business groups have been opposed to a mandatory heat standard and have lobbied against it in the past. And if Donald Trump wins the presidency, it would likely upend the standard entirely.

Time will tell what a final ruling for a workplace heat standard will be, and how well it will align with the needs of workers. Which invites the question: what would strong workplace protections against heat look like?

What workplace protections we do (and don’t) have against heat

Long before President Joe Biden pushed for OSHA to develop a heat illness prevention rule, OSHA has understood heat as a hazard to workers — they created their first document for recommended heat standards back in 1972. Their webpage on heat exposure details how to spot heat illness and injuries, heat-related case studies from past OSHA investigations, and even updated criteria for a recommended heat standard for employers.

But that’s all it is: recommendations, guidance, suggestions. Unlike OSHA’s work safety standards, such as respiratory protection or their hazard communication standard, none of the things OSHA lists on heat exposure are mandatory for employers to comply with until a final rule on heat is published.

What employers do have to comply with is OSHA’s general duty clause, which requires that they ensure the workplace is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” In theory, this includes hazards like extreme heat. But in practice, it leaves a lot of room for employer discretion, and very little room for workers to demand more protections.

In absence of a federal rule, five states have passed some sort of heat protection standards: California, Colorado, Minnesota, Washington, and Oregon. In 2022, Oregon’s state OSHA adopted heat protection rules for both outdoor and indoor workers, and just this week, California approved heat standards for indoor workers nearly 20 years after they implemented a workplace heat rule for outdoor workers, the first of its kind. The other states offer protections for only certain groups of laborers — Washington covers outdoor workers only, while Minnesota covers indoor workers and Colorado covers agricultural workers.

Notably missing from this list are some of the United States’ hottest regions, such as the South, which is overwhelmingly dominated by state Republican legislatures. That doesn’t mean efforts haven’t been made to implement heat protections in those places, statewide or locally. In Texas, city councils in Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio passed ordinances to protect construction workers from the heat.

But all of this was overturned by the Texas legislature in 2023, when lawmakers passed a bill that restricted Texas counties and cities from developing laws that go beyond state law. The Florida legislature did the same when Miami-Dade County was on course to pass a heat protection standard for outdoor workers, a devastating blow to workers and labor advocates.

States developing heat protections for workers is a step in the right direction — but it’s only possible when the state government isn’t hostile to such regulations. A federal ruling would supersede any state laws on workplace heat standards (or lack thereof).

What could strong workplace protections against heat look like?

The bare minimum needs for a federal workplace heat standard are “really pretty simple,” says Kristina Dahl, a principal climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s water, shade, and rest. And each of those needs to become progressively more present as the temperature or heat index increases.”

But Dahl also emphasizes that there should be clear standards for water, shade, and rest. There’s a difference between drinking cold water and drinking water that’s turned hot from the sun; between a true 15-minute rest break and doing light work while on a break; between resting in the shade of a truck and resting in the shade of a tent with air conditioning.

Dahl also wants to see workers’ wages protected during these breaks. In a report she co-wrote about the risk outdoor workers face from their exposure to extreme heat, Dahl said one of their findings was that “there’s the potential for workers to lose a lot in earnings if they’re not getting paid for these increasingly long rest breaks as the temperature increases.”

The protection of pay is key for ensuring workers’ safety, says Antonio De Loera-Brust, communications director for United Farm Workers. A lot of outdoor workers make less than the national median income, which makes any potential loss to a paycheck especially difficult. Agricultural workers in particular make low wages as is, and it’s still common for farmworkers to be paid by how much crops they harvest, rather than a secured hourly wage. All of this forces workers to decide between their income and their safety.

“The economic incentive for workers who are living paycheck to paycheck, or living in poverty, or struggling with food on their own tables, is to push themselves to the limit,” De Loera-Brust told me. “They will push their bodies past the breaking point, and will suffer severe health consequences up to and including death, which happens every year.”

According to OSHA, 50 to 70 percent of heat-related fatalities occur during the first week of work, because workers had not adequately acclimated to the heat. In Florida, a young farmworker died from the heat on his first day of work in January 2023.

To prevent these unnecessary deaths, Dahl recommends “at least a two-week acclimation period, where there’s increasing work time in the heat.” And it’s not just those new to heat-exposed work who need to be acclimated to the heat — returning workers who have been away for an extended period, such as seasonal agricultural workers, also need time to get used to the heat again.

Last July, another young farmworker in Florida named Efraín López García died on the job, after working on farms for nearly a decade. His coworkers said they were never trained on how to spot heat illness or give first aid, the Miami Herald reported. To prevent tragic deaths like López García’s, it’s critical that a heat standard also includes mandatory training for workers to recognize the signs of heat stroke and exhaustion, first aid, and what their rights are — all provided in the language they speak.

Even if all criteria for a strong heat standard is met, then comes the issue of enforcement. A lot of workers in industries exposed to heat, like agriculture and construction, are undocumented. Retaliation for standing up for their basic rights and needs can be a real threat to their income and livelihood, and can discourage workers from enforcing standards. There needs to be some sort of combination of worker empowerment, whether through unions or worker collectives, and anti-retaliation measures to ensure that the heat standard is actually imposed.

How different these key demands from workers and advocates will be from the final ruling on a heat standard is still up in the air. Even in some of the best-case scenarios, obstacles to a strong, enforceable rule lie ahead.

What we know about OSHA’s proposed heat standard, and what stands in the way

While the details of OSHA’s proposed rule are not available to the public yet, we do have some idea as to what it might have included so far. According to recommendations from OSHA’s National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety & Health work group, the proposed rule is aimed at both indoor and outdoor work, and it may include the following: a temperature trigger for when the standard would take effect, mandatory rest breaks, access to shade and water, heat illness prevention training, and an acclimatization period for workers to get used to the heat.

Are you a business owner with employees who work in the heat? Here’s how you can protect them.

It’s likely that we’re still years away from OSHA enforcing a standard to prevent heat illness and death, and until then, we’re bound to see more workers get injured or killed from extreme heat. If you’re an employer of workers exposed to heat, here are just a few key recommendations around heat safety in the meantime, according to NIOSH:

  • Rest breaks: Allow for workers to cool down by ensuring consistent breaks, and increase rest breaks as the weather gets hotter.
  • Hydrate: Provide enough potable water for all workers, and make sure it’s in easily accessible areas.
  • Acclimatize: Gradually expose new workers to the heat for at least two weeks before they complete a full day’s worth of work in the heat.

Also, talk to your employees. Workers on the ground will have crucial knowledge about what’s necessary to protect themselves from extreme heat, so their input and participation in creating a standard will be key to ensuring that it actually works.

A lot of this aligns with what workers and advocates are calling for. But we’re likely still months from a published proposed rule and years away from a final ruling, says Jordan Barab, former deputy assistant secretary of labor at OSHA and writer of the newsletter Confined Space. A lot could happen in the meantime, and it also provides ample room for threats to the rule — one major one being if Trump wins the presidency this fall. Trump would likely kill the OSHA’s initiative to develop protections against heat entirely, Barab told me.

But if Biden can hold onto the White House, there’s a much better chance at seeing the rule come to life — though it will still be met with opposition. Some businesses and employers aren’t excited about the prospect of being required to protect workers from heat, and have actively lobbied against it at the federal and state level. They have said that such a standard would be too much of a burden for employers, and that they’re already doing what would be mandated (which, if that’s the case, then why worry about a standard being written down?). “We can certainly expect this one to be challenged in court,” Barab said about the heat standard.

While OSHA generally wins these legal battles, it’s still another obstacle that can cause delays. But in the meantime, some workers are taking matters into their own hands by writing heat provisions into their union contracts. At the end of the day, a federal ruling on a workplace heat standard would take some of the current pressure off workers to be solely responsible for their health on the job and move a large part of that responsibility onto employers. And with each summer we wait, more and more workers’ lives are at risk.

“The clock is ticking,” said De Loera-Brust. “It’s already been over 100 degrees in much of the country this year. No one wants to be the last farmworker to die of heat. ”

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