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Letter: Biden Administration Must Act Urgently to Protect Workers from Heat-Related Illness and Death

Long-Overdue Heat Stress Standards are Needed Ahead of Record-Breaking Summer Heat

WASHINGTON, D.C. – To protect workers from heat-related illness and death ahead of likely record-breaking summer heat, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) should begin the long-overdue process of issuing a workplace heat standard, Public Citizen said today in a letter to the agency’s acting director, Jim Frederick.

“This isn’t a hard issue. Many workers do their jobs in swelteringly dangerous conditions,” said Juley Fulcher, worker health and safety advocate at Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. “It may be picking vegetables under the scorching sun, making road repairs on sizzling pavement, or baking bread all day in ovens reaching temperatures well over 500 degrees. More than a quarter-million workers are at great risk of long-term bodily damage and even death from exposure to heat.”

Heat stress kills more people every year in the U.S. than hurricanes, floods and tornadoes combined, and more than 900 U.S. workers have died and 80,000 have been seriously injured from heat stress since 1992. We’re already feeling the harbingers of the hot summer to come. With global temperatures rising, it’s no surprise that 2021 is predicted to rank among the hottest on record.

Public Citizen petitioned the Trump-controlled OSHA in 2018 to issue a standard to protect workers from occupational exposure to excessive heat. Joining the petition were two former OSHA directors and a former director of California’s state workplace safety entity (CalOSHA), as well as 131 labor, health, climate and faith-based organizations. The petition has languished without action.

Now the Biden Administration has the chance to do the right thing. Public Citizen’s letter calls on Acting Director Jim Frederick to review their petition and take immediate action to put a protective heat standard in place.

For years, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has recommended that OSHA issue a standard to protect workers from heat illnesses ranging from heat exhaustion to heatstroke and death. It issued criteria for a recommended heat standard in 1972 and issued updates based on the latest science in 1986 and 2016. It includes guidance on protective equipment, emergency medical response preparation and adequate water and rest breaks.

OSHA has blueprints for a rule, and not just from NIOSH’s recommendations. Three states – California, Washington, and Minnesota – and the U.S. military have successfully implemented heat stress standards informed by NIOSH guidance. It’s time to protect all U.S. workers.

Heat stress disproportionately harms Black and Brown workers. While Latino and Hispanic workers make up 17.6% of the entire workforce, they make up 65% of farm laborers, a job where workers die from heat stress at a rate 20 times greater than the rest of the U.S. workforce. Black Americans only make up 12.1% of the total workforce but comprise nearly 28% of refuse and recyclable materials collectors nationally and account for well over half the collectors in many areas of the country. Additionally, 44% of grounds maintenance workers are Hispanic or Latino, as are 52% of roofers. In any of those jobs, workers can be exposed to health-threatening levels of heat.

“We can’t expect workers to put their lives at risk to make sure there is food on our tables and packages are delivered to our front doors,” said Fulcher. “As we Build Back Better, we must make old and new jobs safe from heat hazards.”

The full letter can be found here.

The 2018 petition requesting a workplace heat standard can be found here.