Hotter Days Making Harder Work

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Scholars discuss how regulating heat exposure at work could protect workers as temperatures rise.

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Each year, excessive heat causes approximately 170,000 workplace injuries in the United States. Furthermore, the United States spends nearly $100 billion annually on heat-related occupational injury.

Climate change is exacerbating the dangers of workplace heat exposure, leading some experts to call for increased regulation to protect workers.

Health impacts caused by excessive heat increase the chance of workplace injury. Exposure can harm physical health, leading to stroke, exhaustion, and even death. Experts also associate excessive heat with decline in cognitive function, increase in aggression, and exacerbation of mental health disorders.

Workers engaged in outdoor physical labor are most vulnerable to heat. Farm workers, for example, are 35 times more likely to die of heat exposure than other workers. Indoor workers without air conditioning or proper ventilation are also at risk of harm.

Low-wage and immigrant workers face a disproportionate risk of heat-related fatality and injury. Hispanic workers made up one third of heat-related workplace deaths since 2010.

As of August 2023, only five states had permanent heat standards: California, Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington.

Some other states are rolling back regulations. For example, the Governor of Texas signed a measure that critics expect will nullify the workplace heat rules in Austin and Dallas that require 10-minute water breaks for workers every four hours. The Florida legislature has rejected a bill three times that would merely suggest for employers to provide breaks and drinking water during extreme heat.

There exists no protective federal standard in the United States specific to injury and illness caused by environmental heat in the workplace. Instead, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) must rely on a general provision of the Occupational Safety and Health Act requiring employers to keep workplaces free from hazards. Under this provision, however, OSHA lacks the authority to compel employers to abate dangerous heat conditions until the agency has proven that the conditions in a specific case constitute a hazard. This evidentiary barrier means that OSHA generally acts only after a person has been injured or died from heat.

In 2021, OSHA issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking for a federal standard governing hazardous heat at work. The rule would empower OSHA to require that employers remedy conditions before lives are endangered. Advocates for such a standard argue that it could reduce workplace injuries by at least 50,000 incidents a year.

In the meantime, OSHA has initiated a temporary enforcement mechanism focusing agency resources on heat-related dangers. Furthermore, in July 2023, OSHA issued an alert for heat reminding employers of their general obligation to protect workers from hazards.

In this week’s Saturday Seminar, experts discuss potential regulatory solutions to dangerous environmental heat exposure in the workplace.

  • Exposure to excessive heat disproportionately impacts workers of color, immigrants, and low-income workers, Juley Fulcher of Public Citizen finds in a report. Data on the number of heat-related fatalities in the workplace underestimates the actual number of deaths, Fulcher contends. This inaccuracy is in part because death certificates only indicate the immediate cause of death and heat exposure may be an underlying cause, Fulcher explains. To protect worker health, Fulcher argues that Congress should pass a law directing OSHA to institute an interim heat standard while a permanent rule is developed. This standard would provide employers with a clear understanding of what constitutes hazardous heat and allow OSHA to hold them accountable.
  • Around three million outdoor workers in the United States experience seven or more unsafe workdays each year due to extreme heat, Kristina Dahl and Rachel Licker of the Union of Concerned Scientists find in a report. As climate change makes days with extreme heat more frequent, the number of unsafe outdoor workdays will increase, Dahl and Licker argue. According to Dahl and Licker, this increase will translate to negative health impacts and lost earnings for outdoor workers, who are disproportionately Black and Hispanic. Dahl and Licker also note that unregulated exposure to extreme heat would disrupt the essential services that outdoor workers perform, such as building maintenance, law enforcement, or crop harvesting.
  • In a report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Juanita Constible and several coauthors warn that climate change is worsening the severity and frequency of occupational hazards, including heatstroke and injury. Constible and her coauthors explain that as temperatures rise, workers in the United States will face increased threats to health, including heart attacks, traumatic injury, and vulnerability to toxic chemicals. Constible and her coauthors recommend that Congress broaden protection for public workers under OSHA, develop a publicly accessible national surveillance system for occupational health and safety, and expand climate change research.
  • In a report issued by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, Gabriel Petek urges the California legislature to consider how climate hazards, including extreme heat, increase occupational hazards and decrease productivity. Petek predicts that as work instability increases due to heat, these industries and workers will shift their operations to other geographical locations. Petek notes that while California has taken some actions to address these dangers, the state generally acts only after injury or death has occurred. Petek recommends that California agencies instead take proactive measures to protect workers, including conducting a workplace vulnerability assessment, monitoring how workers’ compensation is used for heat-related injury, and more frequently inspecting high-risk industries.
  • In an article in Urban Climate, Zachary Kearl and Jason Vogel of the University of Washington use Washington state as a case study for climate resilience strategies. The state requires employers to maintain heat exposure prevention plans, provide annual training, and supply additional water on hot days, Kearl and Vogel note. Workers, however, are expected to monitor their own symptoms, Kearl and Vogel explain. In this self-advocacy system, Kearl and Vogel contend, workers are discouraged from seeking permitted breaks, water, and shade out of fear of retaliation or lost earnings. Kearl and Vogel suggest instead a system in which wearable technology could serve as an objective measure of when workers require protection from heat.
  • In a report by the Work Income and Equity Unit, the International Labor Organization (ILO) cautions that the threat of rising temperatures is leading to deteriorating working conditions worldwide. As a result, ILO warns, productivity decline will deepen global inequity and increase unplanned migration. ILO recommends that governments implement policies to address heat stress in line with the Occupational Safety and Health Convention of 1981 and its accompanying recommendation. Together, these standards oblige governments to adopt a national occupational safety policy that addresses temperature, humidity, and movement of air in the workplace. ILO also recommends that governments improve warning systems for heat waves, develop social protection instruments addressing loss of income during heat events, and update building standards to reduce internal temperatures.

The Saturday Seminar is a weekly feature that aims to put into written form the kind of content that would be conveyed in a live seminar involving regulatory experts. Each week, The Regulatory Review publishes a brief overview of a selected regulatory topic and then distills recent research and scholarly writing on that topic.