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The Impact of Heat Stress on Workers of Color

By Abi Velasco, Racial Equity Policy Associate

This past summer, excessive heat warnings were issued all across the United States. From the South to the West Coast, the entire country felt record breaking temperatures. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, July 2021 was the hottest recorded month—ever. Outside of the United States, Asia encountered its hottest July on record and Europe had its second hottest. A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the United Nations body of climate experts in charge of assessing the science behind climate change—stated that “it is an established fact that human-induced greenhouse gas emissions have led to an increased frequency and/or intensity of some weather and climate extremes…in particular for temperature extremes.” In 2015, 196 countries drafted the Paris Agreement, agreeing to limit global warming to 2.0 degrees Celsius and to try to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Without meeting the 1.5°C goal, which would stave off worsening climate change, extreme hot weather will not only persist, but intensify.

As a result, extreme heat will likely continue to be the worst cause of weather related deaths in the United States. Black and Brown workers are disproportionately represented in heat related deaths, particularly those who work in some of the most dangerous conditions for heat exposure with few worker protections, such as those in agriculture, construction, grounds maintenance, landscaping, road work, roofing, and warehouses. A 2019 study found that Black construction workers were on average 51% more likely to die from heat and Mexican-born workers were 91% more likely. The true number of heat-related worker deaths is impossible to know because the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not collect accurate data.

The large concentration of Black and Brown workers performing jobs in hot conditions is nothing new. In the 1800s, some in the U.S. defended the harsh conditions imposed on enslaved laborers on the basis that Black people were biologically different and better withstand working under extreme heat. Similar arguments were used to address labor shortages experienced by White sugar planters in Hawai’i and California farm owners. When the United States government implemented racist immigration policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a law that barred the immigration of Chinese laborers, and the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, a law that denied Japanese laborers passports to enter the United States, purportedly scientific racism was again used to allow the migration of Mexican people into the country to provide cheap labor that exposed them to occupational heat stress, such as that in hazardous indoor commercial laundry facilities. White workers were seen as biologically vulnerable and weak compared to workers of color and, therefore, largely shielded from jobs that would expose them to heat stress. One pipe manufacturer in Pennsylvania even classified Mexican people as only fit for hot or dirty jobs.

The long held racist beliefs about the biology of workers of color versus White workers were further codified into policy and law through the New Deal. For example, New Deal legislation used facially “race neutral” language to exclude agricultural and domestic workers from receiving important labor protections even though the exclusion directly targeted Black and Brown workers. This left many vulnerable to unsafe working conditions, wage theft, and work-related health hazards.

The deadly effects of occupational heat stress aren’t just caused by exposure to extreme temperatures. Access to cool down periods that allow the body to get back to a healthy state is essential in preventing heat related deaths. Without access to water, shade, and breaks, the body’s metabolic system is strained continuously trying to keep the body cool. Once the workday is over, many workers can’t find the relief they need at night to cool down because they lack access to air conditioning. In general, Black and Brown people are less likely to have access to air conditioning. For those who do have access, a working paper from the University of California, Berkeley, Energy Institute at Haas, found Black renters pay $273 more per year than White renters for energy costs and Black homeowners pay $408 more per year (controlling for year, income, household size, credit access, home ownership, and local housing stock). The study found that some of this disparity is due to the lack of affordable housing available to Black and Brown people due to a long history of discriminatory housing policies and wealth inequality that has made it difficult to find energy-efficient home appliances they can afford. High energy costs mean that low-income workers of color must choose between paying high energy bills to cool down or paying for other costly necessities.

For those who cannot afford air conditioning, fans alone aren’t reliable enough to cool off in extreme heat. With global temperatures continuing to climb, nighttime temperatures aren’t getting low enough to cool us down.

With low-income workers and workers of color at the forefront of feeling the effects of the climate crisis in the form of job-related heat exposure, federal action is needed to protect workers long forgotten. Recently, the Biden Administration announced a cross-agency process to create a federal heat standard. Public Citizen has been fighting for this long overdue action since we first petitioned OSHA in 2011 to create a federal heat standard. More recently, we partnered with Farmworker Justice, United Farm Workers, Union of Concerned Scientists, and a coalition of over 130 labor, environment, and public health organizations in 2018 to petition OSHA to fight for protections for workers and will continue to push for federal and state action. We are proud of the work we have done to focus the federal government’s attention on this important issue that has major implications for the health and safety of all workers, but, in particular, for workers of color who work in dangerous heat who for too long have been ignored.