The Biden Administration announced new measures on Monday to protect Americans from extreme heat, after hundreds perished during unprecedented heat waves in the Pacific Northwest this summer, and power outages from Hurricane Ida last month killed elderly Louisiana residents as temperatures soared.
Heat is the nation’s leading cause of weather-related deaths, and heat waves are becoming more intense and more frequent as the planet warms. In a statement released Monday, President Biden vowed that Americans would not face this threat alone.
“Rising temperatures pose an imminent threat to millions of American workers exposed to the elements, to kids in schools without air conditioning, to seniors in nursing homes without cooling resources, and particularly to disadvantaged communities,” President Biden wrote. “Today, I am mobilizing an all-of-government effort to protect workers, children, seniors, and at-risk communities from extreme heat.”
As part of that effort, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, as well as other federal agencies, have been tasked with ensuring safe working conditions and protecting public health by providing cooling assistance to people in their homes and at community cooling centers.
The devastating effects of other climate disasters like hurricanes and floods often play out on the nightly news, but the toll of heat-related illness often escapes the public eye, experts say, largely because of who is affected.
Millions of workers experience heat stress on the job, with agriculture and construction workers at highest risk. Indoor workers without adequate cooling, especially in warehouses, factories and restaurants, are also at risk. Dangerous exposures disproportionately affect people of color, and heat-related deaths are often misclassified or unreported, experts say, especially when workers are undocumented.
Heat also endangers people living in urban centers with few parks to offer shade, as well as seniors, children and economically disadvantaged groups without access to air conditioning.
A ‘Potentially Staggering’ Spike in Dangerous Heat
Hundreds of people died from heat-related illness and thousands sought treatment at emergency rooms during the record-breaking heat that overwhelmed local cooling centers and first responders in the Pacific Northwest in June. An Oregon farmworker died as temperatures reached 105 degrees Fahrenheit, underscoring the urgent need for federal heat standards to protect workers. After Hurricane Ida left much of Louisiana without power, a dozen of the 28 deaths related to the storm were attributed to heat exposure.
The Pacific Northwest heat wave would not have been possible without climate change, scientists say.
And without global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a 2019 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists warned, the United States faces a “potentially staggering” spike in dangerous heat in the coming decades.
By midcentury, the country is likely to see an average of 36 days per year when the temperature “feels like” it exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit, more than double historical levels, according to the report.
“Worker advocacy and environmental groups have long been calling for heat health protections, so it’s great to see that OSHA is making that a reality,” said Kristina Dahl, senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “That said, we know that the average rule from OSHA takes about eight years to develop.”
Workers desperately need some of the measures being proposed, like increasing enforcement and inspections on hot days to make sure employees are getting shade, water and other protections, Dahl said.
“But we also would hope that because there’s so much evidence already out there in the published literature, and in government recommendations on keeping workers safe, that somehow we could expedite the rulemaking process in this case,” she said. “Workers just can’t wait eight years for this kind of rule.”
More than 815 workers died from heat stress between 1992 and 2017.
Democrats have introduced bills to guarantee workers protection from heat in the last several sessions of Congress. In March, Democratic Sens. Alex Padilla of California and Sherrod Brown of Ohio introduced a heat protection bill named after Asunción Valdivia, a 53-year-old California farmworker who died of heat stroke in 2004, after picking grapes for 10 hours in 105 degree heat.
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Last month, the senators urged the Department of Labor to move quickly to protect workers as “climate change is compounding the problem.”
In a statement, Padilla said he was grateful that the Biden administration is moving to protect workers from heat-related illnesses and deaths. “We must address the rising health risks of extreme heat in the workplace—particularly for low-income communities and communities of color who are bearing the brunt of this climate crisis,” he said.
The labor of outdoor workers is often critical to our society and how it functions, and it’s often really invisible, said Dahl.
“One in five working Americans has a job that requires outdoor work,” she said. “The next time you put lettuce on your plate for dinner or hear an asphalt truck outside, take a moment to think about how that person’s work puts them at risk and benefits you.”
She added: “And think about the kind of society you’d like to live in, which hopefully is one where workers are safe and protected, as they keep the rest of us safe and healthy and fed.”