New US Bill Would Help People Working in Dangerous Heat

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Farmworkers, considered essential workers under the Covid-19 pandemic, harvest beans in Homestead, Florida, May 12, 2020. 
© 2020 AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Many United States farmworkers and other essential outdoor workers have gone to work throughout the dangerous Covid-19 pandemic, putting food on people’s tables and collecting their trash. But outdoor workers put themselves at risk every year by laboring in extreme temperatures that can be deadly or cause lasting disability. These deaths and illnesses are preventable, and they are on the rise.

The heart of this problem: It is getting hotter, and there is no going back. This year has broken US temperature records, and produced yet another in a line of hotter-than-usual summers. Even if the world cuts carbon emissions drastically (and it must if the US is to avoid the mind-numbingly high temperatures predicted on the current emissions path), significant increases in heat are already “baked in” to the country’s future. You can see the numbers for your city or county here.

A national heat standard, which would protect outdoor workers by mandating water, rest, shade, and other protections, has long been needed. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH, a government research and education agency) issued criteria for a heat standard in 1972, and then updated it in 1986 and 2016. But the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA), which is responsible for work safety and rules and regulations, has never issued a heat standard. Accordingly, it has only the vague and hard-to-enforce general duty clause (of the OSH Act) to punish employers for forcing people to work in health-threatening heat.

Ignoring the human body’s limited ability to thermoregulate (i.e., stay cool enough to survive) in an overheating world, and instead standing by as workers are pushed past their limit, violates the international human right to work, which includes decent working conditions, and threatens workers’ rights to health and life. 

The Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, presented in the US Senate today by Senator Kamala Harris, is named after a farmworker who died of heat stroke. The bill would push OSHA to issue a heat standard and monitor implementation. It would also require heat illness training for employers and workers, paid breaks for rest, access to water, and limits on how long workers can work in extreme heat.

These are lifesaving and commonsense protections, long overdue for US workers.