Report: Heat Is One of the Chief Causes of Occupational Injuries and Fatalities

Amid Worsening Heat Waves, OSHA Must Act Immediately

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Exposure to heat is among the greatest causes of injuries and fatalities to workers, according to a report released today by Public Citizen. The threat is rapidly worsening as climate change produces hotter and hotter summers, clearly requiring the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to take emergency action to protect workers from life-threatening heat.

“The toll of environmental heat is many times what is indicated in government data and falls most heavily on workers who have the least ability to protect themselves,” said Dr. Juley Fulcher, Public Citizen’s health and safety advocate and the author of the report. “Given the danger, OSHA must create an emergency safety rule to do its job of protecting workers.”

According to the report:

  • Environmental heat is likely responsible for at least 170,000 work-related injuries in the United States every year, which would rank it third among all causes of worker injuries.
  • Heat exposure contributes to between 600 and 2,000 worker fatalities annually, making it one of the top three causes of occupational fatalities and, possibly, the top cause.
  • A heat-safety standard issued by California reduced injuries by 30%, suggesting that at least 50,000 injuries and illnesses could be avoided nationwide if OSHA adopted a simple safety rule.

“Today’s heat waves are just another indication of how extreme heat due to the climate crisis is endangering workers, especially immigrant farm workers,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “Protecting workers couldn’t be simpler. They need water, shade, and rest. But it won’t happen unless the government requires it. OSHA needs to act immediately to require employers to take these commonsense steps.”

Among workers, casualties from heat are disproportionately borne by agriculture and construction workers, and those who work in high-temperature indoor jobs. These workers are far more likely than average to be poor, Black, or Brown, and to lack safety-net protections such as health insurance or access to workers’ compensation.

In 2021, following a series of formal petitions submitted by Public Citizen and allies, OSHA began a process of developing a heat safety standard.

“While welcome, that process typically takes the better part of a decade, which is why an Emergency Temporary Standard is critical,” Fulcher said.

Read the full report here.