Biden tackles climate-driven extreme heat

By Ariel Wittenberg | 09/20/2021 12:39 PM EST

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration will launch a rulemaking process next month to develop a workplace heat standard for both outdoor and indoor job sites. Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News (illustration); Freepik (photos center and right, thermometer); Josh Olalde/Unsplash (left photo); Weather.gov (heat stroke chart)

The Biden administration today announced its first steps to protect workers from extreme heat, following a summer of deadly high temperatures for America’s laborers.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration plans next month to begin the process of developing a workplace heat standard for both outdoor and indoor job sites. What’s more, OSHA is also standing up a National Emphasis Program focused on heat for next summer, and agency inspectors will ramp up inspections of work sites in “high-risk” industries when temperatures surpass 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The agency will additionally form a National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health and Heat Injury.

“Throughout the nation, millions of workers face serious hazards from high temperatures both outdoors and indoors. Amid changing climate, the growing frequency and intensity of extreme heat events is increasing the dangers worker face, especially for workers of color who disproportionately work in essential jobs in tough conditions,” Department of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said in a statement.

Hundreds of people died this past summer under brutal record-breaking temperatures, even in normally temperate regions like the Pacific Northwest.

Workers, too, baked in the heat.

High temperatures killed an estimated 815 workers between 1992 and 2017 and seriously injured 70,000 more, according to federal records.

This summer’s heat waves turned up the temperature on the Biden administration, which was already in the hot seat from workers’ advocacy groups and even former OSHA officials petitioning the agency and arguing climate change made the case for heat protections all the more urgent.

Today, those advocates are cautiously optimistic.

“This is a very important step forward,” said David Michaels, who led OSHA under the Obama administration. “This is a signal that protecting workers from extreme heat is not only an OSHA priority, but it is an administration priority.”

Laborers are particularly vulnerable to heat because the arduous nature of their work makes it hard for their bodies to cool down. Prolonged heat exposure can lead to dizziness, nausea, heat exhaustion and even heat stroke, which can be deadly. It can also exacerbate preexisting heart and respiratory conditions.

Increased heat waves and rising temperatures driven by climate change also have an economic cost. One analysis from the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center released last month on the economic and social consequences of extreme heat in the United States calculated that the U.S. is on track to lose an average of $100 billion annually from heat-induced lost labor productivity. The figure is expected to double to $200 billion by 2030 and further increase to $500 billion by 2050.

But protecting workers from heat can be simple: Research shows that providing them with increased amounts of water, rest and shade as temperatures rise can save lives and prevent injuries.

OSHA has never written regulations to protect workers from heat, with the agency’s reluctance to address the deadly threat extending back through nine administrations (Greenwire, Aug. 6).

Instead, the agency has relied on voluntary guidelines for years, merely telling employers that providing water, rest and shade can save lives.

Until now, the only signal that the administration was serious about tackling the issue was a notice in the spring unified agenda, which said OSHA would begin requesting information about heat’s impact on workers in October.

Today’s announcement means the administration is upping the ante, promising an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking next month.

“They still haven’t said they are going to make a rule, but this ties them more to creating one,” said Juley Fulcher, a worker health advocate for Public Citizen.

The move is sure to receive pushback from employers.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce declined to comment on today’s announcement, but the powerful industry group’s Vice President for Workplace Policy Mark Freedman has previously told E&E News that he feared the subjective nature of heat — that it becomes dangerous for different people at different temperatures — means that an OSHA rule could make employers liable for factors outside of their control.

“This is not as simple as a chemical exposure in the workplace where there is a consensus around how much is bad and you can prevent that,” he said in August. “Defining a heat hazard can be subjective. It gets into what is going on in the employee’s life. And I don’t think employers want to ask, or employees want to be asked, those questions.”

It remains to be seen just how long actual, final protections will take to write. OSHA is infamous for lengthy deliberations on worker protections.

“The White House recognition and emphasis on worker heat illness is great,” tweeted former OSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary Jordan Barab. “But without significant budget increase & streamlining the regulatory process, it will likely be 10 years before an OSHA standard is issued.”

Michaels also noted that OSHA regulations typically take seven years but said delays often come from White House reviews. The president’s attention to the issue, he suggested, could mean the White House would push a faster process this time.

Congress could also pass laws to cut red tape in the regulatory process — and a bill has already been introduced in both chambers.

Sponsor Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, called today’s announcement “an important step to securing basic protections for workers in fields, factories, warehouses and other workplaces.”

“Workers are counting on OSHA to conduct a thorough and expedited rulemaking process that will avert a surge of heat-related illnesses and preventable deaths,” he said.

Just as significant is the promised enforcement initiative on heat for OSHA inspectors next summer.

The agency says it will ramp up both planned and unannounced inspections and dedicate additional resources to follow up on heat-related complaints when temperature and humidity combine to a heat index of 80 F.

The agency will also expand a its preexisting education campaign on heat illness prevention.

Because OSHA has no heat-specific standards, it has traditionally only acted against employers when workers die or become seriously ill from heat exposure.

“That’s too late; it doesn’t protect workers,” said Michaels.

He hopes that the heat initiative means the agency will issue citations to employers if they find “excessive heat exposure, not just people being sick.” Announcing the program now, nearly nine months before the next heat season, also means the agency is “putting employers on notice.”

“The point isn’t to catch employers, its to get as many employers as possible to comply with the law,” Michaels said.

OSHA will further create a national emphasis program on heat inspections, to target heat-hazard cases in vulnerable industries like construction and farming. Such emphasis programs require a lot of data, and the agency promises it is working hard to compile the information needed before summer 2022.

Fulcher agrees that the emphasis program is a significant step. But OSHA has been caught up in litigation over whether it can truly issue citations for heat-related hazards in the workplace without any standards.
“It’s great to have an emphasis program,” she said. “But we will see how it plays out.”

The OSHA initiatives announced today are just the latest actions the Biden administration has taken to address heat’s health effects. The administration has also established an Interagency Working Group on Extreme Heat and undertaken efforts to collect more data on ways to forecast heat waves and track their health impacts.

“My administration will not leave Americans to face this threat alone,” Biden said in a statement. “Today I am mobilizing an all-of-government effort to protect workers, children, seniors and at-risk communities from extreme heat.”