OSHA Will Issue Heat Standards to Protect Workers

By: - September 21, 2021 12:00 am

Farmworkers at Del Bosque Farms in Firebaugh, California, take a break from picking melons on a day when temperatures were expected to surpass 110 degrees. California is one of the few states with workplace heat standards that require provisions such as shade and drinking water. Terry Chea/The Associated Press

President Joe Biden announced this week that his administration’s efforts to address extreme heat will include new rules from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to protect workers from dangerous conditions.

“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,” Biden said in a statement released Monday. “My Administration will not leave Americans to face this threat alone.”

Biden’s announcement comes amid a growing cry from labor advocates that current standards do little to protect workers from harmful temperatures. Climate change is likely to exacerbate the extreme conditions that threaten farmworkers, construction workers and others.

Last month, a joint report published by NPR and Columbia Journalism Investigations found that over the past decade, at least 384 workers died from environmental heat exposure. The three-year average of worker heat deaths has doubled since the early 1990s, the investigation found, but companies frequently avoided punishment for worker deaths.

OSHA will begin the rulemaking process on the new standard next month, the agency announced in a statement, starting with a comment period to gather perspectives and technical expertise. The rule will cover both indoor and outdoor workplaces.

The federal agency’s action comes after Oregon and Washington regulators issued emergency heat rules of their own this summer, following a record-breaking heat wave that left the Northwest sweltering and led to the death of an Oregon farmworker. California also has workplace heat rules on the books, while Minnesota has standards for indoor workers only. Those states’ rules include provisions such as shade, cooldown breaks and drinking water at certain temperature thresholds.

The majority of states, however, have no protections from extreme heat. Only 21 states oversee workplace safety in the private sector, while the rest rely on the federal OSHA. Labor advocates say that lack of oversight underscores the importance of federal action. The states with their own workplace safety agencies must meet or exceed any federally issued safety rules, meaning any OSHA standard would apply nationwide.

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Alex Brown
Alex Brown

Based in Seattle, Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Stateline, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington state.