“As our summers grow hotter and more deadly, OSHA must heed the call of these seven AGs and issue an emergency heat standard to protect workers,” said one public health advocate.
Attorneys general from seven U.S. states on Thursday called for swift federal action to shield workers nationwide from the deadly effects of extreme heat, which is being made worse by the fossil fuel-driven climate crisis.
In a petition to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the state AGs of California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania urged the agency to issue an emergency temporary standard (ETS) to protect workers who are exposed to dangerously high temperatures by May 1, before the start of summer.
Specifically, the AGs called on OSHA to issue an ETS that “requires employers to take targeted steps to prevent harm to their workers, such as providing ample water, rest breaks, and access to cool or shaded areas,” any time “the heat index reaches 80°F—a temperature associated with increased rates of serious heat-related illnesses.”
“Extreme workplace heat poses a grave danger to the health and safety of tens of millions of outdoor and indoor workers in our states and across the nation,” the AGs wrote. “Because climate change is spurring longer, more intense, and more frequent heatwaves, workers are increasingly exposed to dangerous levels of heat and humidity, along with the secondary effects of extreme heat, such as poor air quality.”
“Exposure to extreme heat can cause a range of acute and chronic heat-related illnesses, and extreme heat is responsible for dozens of workplace deaths each year, a number that is likely significantly undercounted,” they continued. “Although nearly all outdoor and many indoor workers are susceptible to occupational heat illness, workers in certain industries—including agriculture, construction, postal and delivery services, warehousing, and food services—are particularly vulnerable to heat stress due to the combined effects of their work environment, the physical nature of their work, and prevailing socioeconomic factors.”
Democratic California AG Rob Bonta said in a statement that “we have the tools to address this challenge and we must use them.”
While California, Oregon, and Washington have already identified extreme heat as an occupational hazard and adopted lifesaving emergency standards accordingly, the AGs stressed in their petition that federal heat protections are necessary because “in 27 states and territories, OSHA is the only entity authorized to issue workplace health and safety standards that cover both public and private sector workers.”
Moreover, the officials pointed out, OSHA’s existing attempts to mitigate workplace heat hazards are inadequate.
“As OSHA has acknowledged, enforcement actions under the General Duty Clause [of the Occupational Safety and Health Act] are almost always unsuccessful,” the AGs wrote, “because without a regulatory standard for heat, it is difficult for the agency to prove in an enforcement proceeding that working in extreme heat is hazardous.”
While the AGs strongly support OSHA’s recent move to initiate rulemaking for a permanent heat standard, they noted that this process “is expected to take several years, leaving millions of outdoor and indoor workers exposed to dangerous levels of heat in the interim.”
In the meantime, an ETS “would fill this regulatory void during the hottest months of the year when workers are most likely to experience extreme workplace heat exacerbated by climate change,” the AGs observed.
Last June, Public Citizen published a report detailing how exposure to extreme heat on the job leads to at least 170,000 injuries and up to 2,000 deaths each year in the U.S. alone. The progressive advocacy group implored OSHA to act immediately to protect workers from record-breaking temperatures, estimating that at least 50,000 injuries could be avoided annually as a result.
On Thursday, Juley Fulcher, a worker health and safety advocate at Public Citizen and lead author of the report, reiterated the group’s demand for OSHA to promulgate an ETS to prevent more workers from succumbing to heat-related illnesses.
“Millions of essential workers across the country, working both indoors and outdoors, risk their health and lives working in excessive heat conditions to keep our economy running,” said Fulcher. “As OSHA navigates the extensive procedures and bureaucratic hurdles to create a final heat standard, the danger to workers continues unabated.”
“Too many American workers have suffered from occupational heat stress. And climate change continues to make an already-urgent crisis even more dangerous,” she added. “As our summers grow hotter and more deadly, OSHA must heed the call of these seven AGs and issue an emergency heat standard to protect workers.”
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