As brutal heat continues this summer, a report published in August by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) says outdoor workers in the United States could face four times as many days with hazardous heat by mid-century if action isn't taken to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.
The report also projects a severe economic toll, with the average outdoor worker losing more than $1,700 each year because of work stoppages on days when heat and humidity top 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the point at which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends employers reduce work schedules..
The consequences of that extreme heat can be severe: a recent NPR/Columbia Journalism School investigation found that at least 384 workers have died from environmental heat exposure in the last decade. And the problem is getting worse: the three-year average of worker heat deaths has doubled since the early 1990s.
“The last seven years have been the hottest on record," said Rachel Licker, the senior climate scientist and an author of the UCS report, said in a statement. "Without additional protections, the risks to workers will only grow in the decades ahead as climate change worsens, leaving the roughly 32 million outdoor workers in our country to face a brutal choice: their health or their jobs.”
Lost wages from extreme heat are projected to amount to more than $55 billion annually, says NPR.
NPR and Columbia investigation
In August, NPR and Columbia Journalism Investigations (CJI), the investigative reporting unit of Columbia Journalism School, conducted a deep investigation into heat deaths in the U.S. At least 384 workers who died from environmental heat exposure in the U.S. in the last decade. The count includes people in essential jobs in 37 states across the country: farm laborers in California, construction and trash-collection workers in Texas and tree trimmers in North Carolina and Virginia. An analysis of federal data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the three-year average of worker heat deaths has doubled since the early 1990s.
The well-researched and in-depth article is well worth a read for safety professionals and anyone in charge of workers who are exposed to heat stress. NPR and CJI call out OSHA for failing to protect workers against heat hazards.
They state: OSHA, “whose primary responsibility is to protect workers from hazards, has failed to adopt a national heat standard to safeguard workers against rapidly rising temperatures, resulting in an enforcement system rife with problems.”
Some states take action
Federal safety regulators have issued no standards to protect workers from heat-related hazards, even as climate change increases the risk of deadly heat waves and extreme weather conditions. But some states have begun acting on their own, requiring employers to provide shade, breaks and drinking water, among other measures.
Washington state and Oregon issued emergency standards in July after a heat wave broke temperature records across the Northwest and caused hundreds of deaths. Maryland regulators will issue heat rules by next year, after lawmakers passed a bill requiring them to do so. And Virginia officials announced earlier this year that they have begun the rulemaking process for a heat standard.
“There are very easy ways employers can address it, which is why we've been calling for [the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration] to act for many years now,” M.K. Fletcher, a safety and health specialist with the AFL-CIO, a federation of labor unions, told Pew. “If we can't do it federally, states need to recognize that all people deserve the same protections and everybody deserves to come home at the end of the day.”
Lack of fed protections
The UCS report highlights the lack of federal worker protections as a major issue for worker safety. As NPR has reported, at least a dozen companies have had multiple employees die from environmental heat exposure. OSHA has not adopted a national heat standard to safeguard workers and often decides not to penalize companies for worker deaths.
The report's authors call for a number of policy changes, including adapting worker schedules to coincide with cooler times of day and lessening overall workloads. Employers, the report says, should also implement mandatory heat safety plans, heat monitoring and reporting requirements, and multilingual training for supervisors and workers to facilitate better and faster responses to dangers imposed by extreme heat.
Advocates also want protections put in place for workers. Right now, the CDC and OSHA have guidelines that encourage employers to take precautions when the heat index exceeds 90 degrees. So far, California and Washington are the only states with enforceable heat-safety standards.