July 17, 2018

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As Climate Heats Up, Government Must Protect Workers From Heat

Organizations File Petition – Joined by Former OSHA Officials – Urging Agency to Issue National Heat Protection Standard

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The federal government must establish protections for workers who are subject to extreme heat, more than 130 organizations said today in a petition (PDF) to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Joining the petition were former OSHA Directors Dr. Eula Bingham and Dr. David Michaels, former California/OSHA Director Ellen Widess, heat illness prevention researcher Dr. Marc Schenker and 89 other individuals.

The filing of the petition marks the launch of a national campaign to raise awareness around the impacts of climate change on the health and safety of workers, as well as other vulnerable populations, while advancing standards to prevent injuries and deaths from outdoor and indoor heat stress.

During a telephone press conference to unveil the urgent call for action, the brother of a farmworker who died from heat shared his family’s experience. Other speakers included an airline catering truck driver; a telecommunications worker; Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers; Jeannie Economos, pesticide safety and environmental health project coordinator of the Farmworker Association of Florida; and U.S. Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.).

Already, heat is the leading weather-related killer in the U.S., and climate change is resulting in more frequent days of extreme heat. With record-breaking summers becoming the norm, outdoor and indoor workers across a wide variety of workplaces will be at greater risk for workplace heat illness.

A heat protection standard should include such things as mandatory rest breaks, hydration and access to cool spaces (shaded or air-conditioned), the groups said. California, Washington state, Minnesota and the U.S. military are the only jurisdictions that have heat protections for workers.

“There is an undiagnosed epidemic of heat-related illness and death in this country, and the problem will get much worse very quickly because of global warming,” said David Arkush, managing director of Public Citizen’s Climate Program. “Some of our most vulnerable workers are at the highest risk. We need to protect them right away, and we need aggressive action to halt greenhouse gas pollution and stop climate change.”

“It is inhumane and inexcusable that despite the long record of success of California’s worker safety agency, Cal/OSHA, in reducing heat-induced worker death and illness, the majority of U.S. workers who are at risk for heat stress are unprotected by any heat standard,” said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, founder and senior adviser of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

“We attended the funerals of too many California farm workers who needlessly died from extreme heat,” said Arturo S. Rodriguez, United Farm Workers president. “After a spate of heat fatalities of California farm workers, in 2005, the UFW helped persuade then-Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to issue the first comprehensive standards in the nation to prevent heat death and illness by farm and other outdoor workers. We worked with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown to strengthen the regulations in 2015. Republicans and Democrats can take action today to stop these unnecessary deaths by creating national standards such as those we won in California.”

“United Airlines is a company that makes billions in profit, but the trucks I work in do not have air conditioning,” said Arthur Fatu, a driver for United Airlines Catering Operations in Houston, Texas. “I call my truck a traveling sauna. I have suffered from heat rash, dizziness and headache while working on hot days. Working in extreme heat puts us at risk of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.”

“A decade after my brother’s death, workers continue losing their lives from heat illness,” said Raudel Felix Garcia, who lost his brother to heat. “I don’t want any more families to go through the pain that my family went through. I am here to demand safe working conditions for the ones who lift up this country with all the hard work they do laboring under a fireball in the sky.”

Also on Tuesday, Public Citizen released a report analyzing the number of agricultural and construction workers in areas of the country that experienced extreme heat in July 2017 and over the July Fourth holiday week in 2018.

Approximately 130 million workers around the country lack any protection from a heat stress standard. According to the government, 69,374 workers were seriously injured from heat between 1992 and 2016, and 783 U.S. workers died from heat exposure. These numbers are generally agreed to be gross undercounts.

OSHA can cite companies for heat stress violations under its General Duty Clause, but from 2013 through 2017, Cal/OSHA, with a heat standard since 2006, performed 50 times more inspections than OSHA in which there was one or more citations or violations concerning heat.

Dr. David Michaels, one of the OSHA directors joining the petition, denied a similar petition when he ran OSHA.

“We learned from the Deepwater Horizon cleanup operation that even in high heat conditions, using the correct precautions can save lives,” said Michaels, OSHA director from 2009-2016. “When Public Citizen and other groups concerned about worker protection petitioned OSHA for a heat standard in 2011, I could not grant the petition because the OSHA health standards staff was working on new rules to protect workers from silica, beryllium and infectious diseases. Now that two of those standards have been completed, it is time for OSHA to protect all workers from heat.”

Read statements (PDF) from other groups and workers.

More about the campaign – including the full list of organizations supporting the effort – can be found here.