October 23, 2021

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Biden administration launches initiative to protect workers from deadly heat

In a statement, Biden acknowledged that the dangers of extreme heat have been exacerbated by the effects of climate change. In the statement, he indicates that according to the National Weather Service, extreme heat kills more American laborers than any other climate-related danger, and is the leading weather-related killer in America—a risk that has only increased amid record-shattering heat around the nation. Last June alone, there were more than 600 excess deaths from extreme heat in the Pacific Northwest. Researchers at World Weather Attribution have stated unequivocally that the “maximum daily temperatures as observed in the [Pacific Northwest] was virtually impossible without human-caused climate change. Our results provide a strong warning: Our rapidly warming climate is bringing us into uncharted territory that has significant consequences for health, well-being, and livelihoods.”

Workers of color have especially borne the brunt of the heat.

“Amid changing climate, the growing frequency and intensity of extreme heat events is increasing the dangers workers face, especially for workers of color who disproportionately work in essential jobs in tough conditions,” said Labor Secretary Marty Walsh in a release.

In the construction sector alone, roughly half of all laborers are Latino. Construction workers make up just 6% of the American workforce, but account for 36% of all work-related heat deaths. Since 2010, Latino people have accounted for one-third of all heat fatalities among workers, despite only constituting17% of the overall working population. Laborers are particularly vulnerable to heat due to their strenuous work. Physical activity makes it difficult for the body to cool itself down; the resulting overheating can exacerbate preexisting respiratory and heart conditions as well as cause dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and heatstroke. But it’s not just those in the sun: Workers at indoor factories and warehouses with no air conditioning are increasingly at risk.

In addition to facing the heat while out in the fields or on the factory floor, relentless temperatures can plague these workers at night. Laborers often have little access to air conditioning on hot nights and are more likely to live in areas with poor air quality and less tree cover, further taxing the bodies trying to cool them down during restless sleep.

Along with the administration’s announcement, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) looked at these social factors in a report on Climate Change and Social Vulnerability. The report examined the impact of climate change on socially vulnerable groups based on income, educational attainment, race and ethnicity, and age. In the 49 cities analyzed, the agency found that race and ethnicity was the leading indicator (by a large margin) of someone’s likelihood to be impacted by adverse climate effects, including extreme heat. This was followed by income, which often intersects with race. Black individuals in particular are 40%-59% more likely than non-Black individuals to currently live in high-impact areas. The report also indicates workers of color are roughly 35% more likely to experience lost labor hours due to weather exposure. This data is why Biden has outlined a number of interventions specifically targeting BIPOC communities.

Though the Biden administration’s announcement has brought a sense of optimism, there are still many hurdles to overcome, chief among them is enforcement. Garrett Brown, an inspector of California’s branch of OSHA from 1994 to 2014, has investigated dozens of heat-related deaths and has documented staffing levels for years, charting the data on his blog, Inside Cal/OSHA. Brown’s figures reveal a tiny workforce—about 190 inspectors for 1 million employers responsible for 18 million workers. That’s one OSHA employee per 88,977 workers, nearly half as many as there were in 1990.

Only 21 states have their own agencies that oversee workplace safety for the private sector; the rest rely on OSHA. Workers’ rights groups, who have long pushed for federal worker safety rules, are hesitant about the amount of time it might take to implement these rules, especially a heat standard. Skeptics also point out that business interests—like the agricultural lobby—could interfere with its implementation.

Workers need protection now, and most states have no regulations, merely following OSHA’s “general duty clause,” which simply states that employers must ensure workplaces are safe from “recognized hazards.” But there is nothing specific to heat.

Some states—like California, Washington, and Oregon—have acted on their own, requiring employers to provide shade, breaks, and water. Yet those who defend OSHA argue that keeping workers safe is difficult to standardize, even with the best intentions. California set the gold standard for heat regulation, and even so, the state experienced 221 heat-related hospitalizations between 2017 and 2019—one-third involved workplaces that complied with the standard.

Biden hopes that the federal government’s interventions will have a greater capacity to reduce heat-related health emergencies. It remains to be seen if the administration can fulfill its promises, and finally help workers beat the heat—before it’s too late.  

Brenton Weyi is a first-generation writer, thinker, and polymath who uses the power of words to cultivate humanity. Informed by travel to dozens of nations to illuminate some of the world’s greatest challenges, his work blends narrative, philosophy, and history to examine how we build ethical societies.

Prism is a BIPOC-led non-profit news outlet that centers the people, places, and issues currently underreported by national media. We’re committed to producing the kind of journalism that treats Black, Indigenous, and people of color, women, the LGBTQ+ community, and other invisibilized groups as the experts on our own lived experiences, our resilience, and our fights for justice. Sign up for our email list to get our stories in your inbox, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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