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Time for National Protections Against Excessive Heat

By Doug Parker, Executive Director

California has long been on the forefront of protecting workers from the hazards of excessive heat. After years of effort, health and safety activists pushed Cal/OSHA to finally enact emergency regulations to protect workers from outdoor heat in 2006 following a surge in heat-related deaths of farmworkers, and we will hopefully soon have a standard affording protections to indoor workers. 

Unfortunately, the federal government has not caught up to California in addressing this issue. According to official figures over 800 workers died in the U.S. from heat exposure between 1992 and 2017, and another 70,000 became seriously ill. These are undoubtedly gross undercounts. Exposure to excessive heat also reduces workers’ mental acuity and physical ability, contributing to increased numbers of traumatic injuries.

In addition to killing people and making them sick, heat hazards are a growing threat to economic prosperity. The 2018 National Climate Assessment identified heat as a major threat to labor productivity that could grow to be one of the greatest categories of adverse economic impacts of climate change on the United States. The cost of lost productivity alone could exceed $200 billion dollars per year by the end of this century. 

History will prove California’s actions to address heat hazards to be prescient. As temperatures rise from global warming, more and more workers will be exposed to heat hazards, and those hazards will become more extreme. While the costs nationally are already far too high, they will only increase with time. California needs to continue its work to get ahead of this issue by finalizing a strong indoor heat standard that can be a national model.

Worksafe was proud to be part of a coalition with Public Citizen, National Resources Defense Counsel, Farmworker Justice and a host of unions, worker organizations, and environmental and public health advocates that in 2018 called on OSHA promulgate a rule to protect workers from the hazards of excessive heat. It is time to renew that call and challenge federal OSHA, or if not OSHA then Congress, to take action to address this issue before more workers needlessly die.