It’s clear that extreme heat is a hazard to lives and livelihoods, even indoors, but job sites have haphazard rules, if any, to deal with it. That’s due in part to the fact that there is no national workplace safety standard for heat. States like California, Minnesota, and Washington do have heat some regulations in place, but advocates say they are not enough to limit the growing dangers.
One farmworker, 38-year-old Sebastian Francisco Perez, was found dead at the farm where he worked in Oregon. Kenton Scott Krupp, 51, was found dead last month at an Oregon Walmart warehouse where he worked. Investigators are still trying to determine whether this was due to extreme heat, but temperatures reached 97 degrees Fahrenheit the day he died, and his coworkers saw him stumbling and struggling to speak.
However, after more than a year of shutdowns and isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people are desperate to get back to work. Many workers — in kitchens, factories, warehouses, delivery trucks, farms — have no choice but to face the heat, and as a consequence, they may suffer. It highlights the difficulties of working in a climate-changed world and portends another divide in the economy.
Park said the results highlight that the impacts of climate change don’t just create inequalities between countries or locations but are also widening divides within employment sectors. A supervisor in an air-conditioned office may face less heat than a nearby worker on an assembly line, for example — and the supervisor might be in charge of the working conditions of other employees.
A spokesperson for the Labor Department said that while the agency doesn’t have an explicit heat standard at the moment, the agency does have a General Duty Clause that directs employers to keep workplaces “free from recognized hazards,” which should include extreme heat.
“OSHA continues strong enforcement related to heat illness using the General Duty Clause and updates its compliance assistance resources, including educational material for both employers and workers,” said a spokesperson in an email. “In addition to the enforcement of employers’ responsibility to protect their workers from heat hazards under the General Duty Clause, we are currently updating our materials and website on the heat illness prevention campaign to recognize indoor and outdoor heat hazards and heat stress.”
But the federal rulemaking process for extreme heat is poised to be a drawn-out affair, despite the fact that other federal agencies like NIOSH have already studied the matter and come up with guidelines.
“The blueprint is just sitting there,” said Juley Fulcher, a worker health and safety advocate at Public Citizen, noting that the process for devising a heat regulation shouldn’t have to take months or start from scratch.
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