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It is Time to Protect Millions of Workers From Extreme Heat

By Mike Tanglis

Washington, D.C. – Over the July 4, 2018, holiday week, an average of more than 2.2 million workers in the agriculture or construction industries worked in extreme heat each day.

The blistering holiday week was yet another reminder of what we face as temperatures continue to rise and heat waves become more frequent. Seventeen of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the agency responsible for protecting workers, has repeatedly failed to act on the topic of unsafe heat – despite overwhelming evidence that it should. Over the past 30 years, heat has been the leading cause of weather fatalities, according to the National Weather Service.

Public Citizen and more than 130 co-petitioners are asking that OSHA develop a standard that would require employers to undertake measures to prevent employees’ heat loads from exceeding maximum thresholds.

In conjunction with the submission of this petition, Public Citizen issued a report quantifying the numbers of employees who are laboring in unsafe heat.

[Read the full report HERE.]

We analyzed temperatures for both July 2017 and for the recent July 4, holiday week for counties covering about 80 percent of the nation’s workforce. Among other things, we found:

  • At least 201 U.S. counties experienced extreme heat each day on average in during July 2017. On July 21 and July 22, 2017, two of the warmest days that month, more than 570 counties experienced extreme heat.
  • An average of 1.1 million agriculture and construction workers labored in extreme conditions each day in July 2017. (These included 265,000 agriculture workers in the agriculture, 851,000 workers in the construction industry.)
  • OSHA concluded that extreme heat was a factor in the deaths of at least six workers July 2017.

The Average Number of Workers Experiencing Extreme Heat
July 2017, by Date (Weekends Shaded)

During the recent July Fourth 2018 holiday week, when heat records were set around the world:

  • At least 322 counties a day experienced extreme heat. On July 5, 2018, 430 counties experienced extreme heat – the most of any day that week.
  • More than 2.2 million workers in the agriculture or construction industries worked in extreme heat during an average day during the holiday week. (These included 374,000 agriculture workers in the agriculture, 1.8 million workers in the construction industry.)
  • Nearly 5.1 million workers in these industries experienced extreme heat at least one day during the week of July Fourth.

The Average Number of Workers Experiencing Extreme Heat
By Date, July 1 to 7, 2018 (Weekends Shaded)

OSHA’s job is to protect every worker. The nature of work done by many of the workers described in our report already places them at risk. Making matters worse, the socio-economic status of many people who work outdoors leaves them especially vulnerable.

The current system does not account for the fact that workers have very little control over their ability to rest, drink water, find shade or otherwise seek relief from excessive heat. As a report in Mother Jones notes, “heat sickness is a symptom of an agricultural system where laborers can’t speak up against unsafe field conditions, in part because many are undocumented.”

This fear is likely greater under the Trump administration, as Immigration and Custom Enforcement raids at workplaces with large numbers of immigrants are on the rise.

Compounding all of this is the fact that climate change is going to lead to warmer temperatures in the future, putting workers at even greater risk. At the current trajectory, by 2100, summers in Boston will resemble today’s summers in Miami Beach. St. Paul, Minn., will feel like Mesquite, Texas. Las Vegas will become the new Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

OSHA needs to act.