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Congress Must Implement a Federal Heat Stress Standard

As record-breaking summer temperatures become the norm, workers are at increased risk for heat illnesses.

By Juley Fulcher

The summer of 2020 saw new heat records throughout the nation for both record high temperatures and record number of days at extreme high temperatures.

As record-breaking summer temperatures become the norm – 19 of the hottest 20 years on record have occurred since 2001 – workers are at increased risk for heat illnesses.

Excessive heat can cause heat stroke and even death if not treated properly, and also exacerbates existing health problems like asthma, kidney failure and heart disease. Farmworkers and construction workers are at the highest risk of heat-related illness and death, but sanitation workers, mine workers and mail and package delivery personnel are also at high risk.

Heat-related illnesses and deaths are completely preventable, but inexcusably the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has failed to develop a federal heat stress standard.

The Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, introduced by U.S. Sens Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) would direct OSHA to finally issue an enforceable heat stress standard to protect workers. A companion bill in the U.S. House was introduced by U.S. Reps. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Bobby Scott (D-Va.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Alma Adams (D-N.C.) and Democrats on the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee.

The legislation is named after a farmworker who died of a heat stroke in 2004 after picking grapes for 10 hours straight in 105-degree temperatures. Unfortunately, Asuncion Valdivia’s story is not unique.

Heat stress causes more deaths in the U.S. annually than hurricanes, floods and tornadoes combined. The danger heat poses to these workers has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, pesticide use and smoke from the wildfires on the West Coast.

“Not only does heat stress kill workers, this is a racial justice issue as well. Essential jobs where employees are exposed to high levels of heat are disproportionately held by Black and Brown workers,” said Juley Fulcher, worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen. “Legislation from Sens. Harris and Brown will tackle both the impacts of climate change and the racial inequities by implementing these critical heat protections for workers.”

Public Citizen, in partnership with United Farm Workers, Farmworker Justice and a network of more than 130 labor, environment and public health organizations has long petitioned OSHA to establish federal protections for workers exposed to excessive heat. That petition followed repeated recommendations by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for OSHA to issue such a standard. However, recent court decisions have limited the ability of OSHA to hold employers accountable under its general duty clause, a “catch all” provision that requires employers to provide safe workplaces, increasing the urgency of these protections.

“Because the agency has failed to act, Congress has a responsibility to require OSHA to protect workers from preventable heat-related injuries, illnesses and deaths,” Fulcher added.