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Summer is Here and it Brings More Health Risks for Workers

OSHA Must Protect Workers from Heat Stress

By Allison Behrens

As we face the first weeks of summer, many of our country’s residents have already experienced an unusually warm May. This is in no small part due to human-induced climate change. Since 1960, every decade has been warmer than the last and 2019 was the second hottest year on record. Meteorologists say this year will be one of the hottest yet.

One of the consequences of rising temperatures is that workers across the country continue to work in unsafe conditions that get worse when temperatures increase. Farmworkers and construction workers spend their days toiling in the hot sun. Postal workers make their deliveries in trucks with no air conditioning. Workers in meatpacking plants and warehouses are crowded into buildings with inadequate cooling. Healthcare workers, dressed in full-body personal protective equipment (PPE), work both inside busy hospitals and outdoors at drive-up testing centers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 1992 and 2016, 783 workers died and more than 69,000 workers received serious injuries due to heat exposure at their jobs. However, the real numbers are even higher due to under-reporting. Heat-related death and injury data rely on employer logs and doesn’t include federal government agencies, self-employed people, or household workers and an injury doesn’t need to be reported if it doesn’t have an impact on the worker’s ability to do their job. Additionally, employers are likely to underreport so they don’t have to pay increased worker compensation costs and workers are likely to underreport for fear of losing their job.

As summer arrives and the country heats up, low-wage workers are at particularly high risk of illness and death due to heat stress. It’s clear OSHA needs to do more to protect them.   Currently, what they recommend is to acclimatize to the heat, consume adequate fluids, and take frequent breaks while working shorter shifts, and while this is good, it isn’t enough. These are just recommendations, not enforceable rules, and for many workers, the recommendations may not be an option. They don’t have the choice to work shorter shifts, or to take frequent breaks and consume adequate fluids, as these decisions are up to the employers, not the workers. To make sure workers are able to protect themselves from heat-related deaths and injuries, OSHA needs to adopt an enforceable national heat standard that requires employers to make essential changes. Support workers by signing this petition to OSHA.