As Climate Heats Up, Public Calls for Worker Protections From Heat

WASHINGTON, D.C. Sept. 18, 2018 – The federal government must establish protections for workers who are subject to extreme heat, 61,620 individuals said today in a petition (PDF) delivered to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The petition was organized by Public Citizen, United Farm Workers (UFW), UFW Foundation and Friends of the Earth.

The filing of the petition is part of a national campaign to raise awareness about 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.

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To mark the campaign launch, in July, more than 130 organizations petitioned (PDF) OSHA for a national heat protection standard. Workers, former OSHA officials and members of Congress supported that call for action. Today’s petition seeks to reinforce the July petition by demonstrating the public’s demand for these fundamental workplace protections.

“There is a silent epidemic of workplace heat illness in the U.S., and it’s rapidly getting worse because of global warming,” said David Arkush, managing director of Public Citizen’s Climate Program. “It’s critical that we protect vulnerable workers and stop greenhouse gas pollution.”

“This summer’s record-breaking heat waves across the U.S. were especially devastating to frontline communities, particularly to farmworkers,” said Lisa Archer, Food and Agriculture Program director at Friends of the Earth. “OSHA must act now to protect the health and safety of workers disproportionally impacted by the climate crisis.”

“We attended the funerals of too many farm workers who needlessly died from extreme heat,” said Arturo S. Rodriguez, United Farm Workers president. “After a spate of heat fatalities of California farm workers, in 2005, the UFW helped persuade then-Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to issue the first comprehensive standards in the nation to prevent heat death and illness by farm and other outdoor workers. We worked with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown to strengthen the regulations in 2015. Those state heat rules have prevented countless deaths and illnesses. Now both Republicans and Democrats should take action to stop these unnecessary deaths by creating national standards such as those we won in California.”

“Every day millions of American workers are on the front line risking their lives to the dangers of heat-related illness. It is unjustifiable that after more than a decade of California implementing the most comprehensive heat regulations for the prevention of heat-related deaths, such basic and commonsense regulations do not exist in all U.S. states. We cannot tolerate losing another valuable life. We have to protect workers from rising temperatures now,” said Diana Tellefson Torres, executive director of UFW Foundation.

Already, heat is the leading weather-related killer in the U.S., and climate change is resulting in more frequent days of extreme heat. With record-breaking summer temperatures becoming the norm, outdoor and indoor workers across a wide variety of workplaces will be at greater risk for workplace heat illness.

A heat protection standard should include such things as mandatory rest breaks, hydration and access to cool spaces (shaded or air-conditioned), among other measures. Only California, Washington, Minnesota and the U.S. military have heat protections for workers.

The petition delivered a strong message to OSHA: “Heat stress can result in heat exhaustion, heat stroke and even death. Climate change is rapidly increasing this hazard for U.S. workers, yet there are no national protections to prevent this growing occupational danger … It’s time to catch up and issue a federal standard that protects workers from heat stress.”

As our environment heats, more climate-related weather events like Hurricane Florence will take place. The risk of serious heat illness is heightened when potable water is scarce and workers have limited access to fans and air conditioning due to power outages.

“During the Hurricane Florence response and recovery effort, OSHA and employers must protect disaster-relief workers from heat stress,” stated Shanna Devine, worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “The public has sent a clear message to OSHA that it must prioritize worker heat protections. With rising temperatures, the time to act is now.”

More about the campaign can be found here.