OSHA pushed to set heat illness prevention standard
For Peggy Frank, a Los Angeles letter carrier, any federal or California safety rule ordering her employer—and all other firms—to protect workers from the hazards of excess heat didn’t work.
Frank, a 63-year-old grandmother, collapsed and died from California’s monstrously high heat while delivering the mail in Woodland Hills, a section of Los Angeles, last summer. The temperature in that particular neighborhood the day she died? 107 degrees.
Frank isn’t the only worker, old or young, or in-between, to succumb to the dangers of the high heat. She’s just the latest one.
And those deaths, among farm workers, truckers, utility workers, construction workers, letter carriers, and others who always work outside in hot conditions, led 130 groups—including several unions—and 88 public health specialists to formally petition the agency to start rulemaking on requiring firms to protect their workers from heat.
In its 49-year existence, OSHA and state OSHAs—except for California, Minnesota, and Washington state—have never required companies to protect their workers from dangers from high outdoor heat, said Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, which assembled the petition to OSHA.
The petition goes hand-in-hand with “a national campaign to raise awareness around the impacts of climate change on the health and safety of workers, as well as other vulnerable populations, while advancing standards to prevent injuries and deaths from outdoor and indoor heat stress,” it said.
To raise that consciousness, the group released Extreme Heat And Unprotected Workers, a report on heat stress on workers, which they also submitted to OSHA.
The report covered agricultural and construction workers in areas of the U.S. that experienced extreme heat in July 2017 and, using the same high heat standards, over the July 4th holiday week in 2018.
“Approximately 130 million workers around the country lack any protection from a heat stress standard,” a summary says. “According to the government, 69,374 workers were seriously injured from heat between 1992 and 2016, and 783 U.S. workers died from heat exposure. These numbers are generally agreed to be gross undercounts.”
“OSHA can cite companies for heat stress violations under its General Duty Clause, but from 2013-2017, Cal/OSHA, with a heat standard since 2006, performed 50 times more inspections than OSHA in which there was one or more citations or violations concerning heat,” the report adds.
“Farm workers are not agricultural implements,” declared Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez.
“We attended the funerals of too many California farm workers who needlessly died from extreme heat,” he added. That led UFW to help persuade then-GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the legislature to enact first-in-the-nation comprehensive heat standards in 2005 and Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown to strengthen anti-heat-exposure rules a decade later.
But it’s not just farm workers.
“United Airlines is a company that makes billions in profit, but the trucks I work in do not have air conditioning,” said Unite Here member Arthur Fatu, a catering truck driver for United Airlines in Houston. “I call my truck a traveling sauna. I have suffered from heat rash, dizziness, and headache while working on hot days. Working in extreme heat puts us at risk of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.”
Dave LeGrande, the recently retired Safety and Health Director of the Communications Workers, said telephone line workers are just as much at risk as other outdoor workers. Since 2000, the union saw three members killed by heat stress from working outdoors, the latest in 2011.
Though CWA has initiated and implemented heat education and anti-heat stress campaigns among its members and bargained in contracts to get firms to battle heat stress, “We do witness employer negligence which results in serious, but not fatal, heat stress health problems.”
“It is inhumane and inexcusable that despite the long record of success of California’s worker safety agency, Cal/OSHA, in reducing heat-induced worker death and illness, the majority of U.S. workers who are at risk for heat stress are unprotected by any heat standard,” said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, founder of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.