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Climate Change Raises Pressure on Biden To Keep Workers Cooler
The Health 202

Climate Change Raises Pressure on Biden To Keep Workers Cooler

With climate change posing rising threats to human health, the Biden administration is drafting federal rules to protect construction crews, warehouse workers, delivery drivers and the rest of America’s workforce from extreme heat. The regulatory effort has been years in the making, and its fate is far from certain.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration plans to publish a proposed heat standard this year, OSHA Assistant Secretary of Labor Doug Parker told me. The rule would require worker protections when temperatures hit as yet undetermined levels.

Though it’s a key milestone, it’s just a preliminary step on a long bureaucratic road — one vulnerable to politics because a new rule probably wouldn’t be issued until years after the presidential election in November. If a Republican wins the White House, advocates say, a heat standard that targets businesses will likely fizzle.

“Anytime there’s a change in administration, there’s a change in priorities,” said Juley Fulcher, worker health and safety advocate at Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization. The group unsuccessfully petitioned OSHA for a heat standard when former president Donald Trump was in office.

Adopting a national heat standard is a priority for the Biden administration because heat is the leading weather-related killer of workers, Parker said. Heat stress can lead to heat exhaustion, heatstroke, cardiac arrest and kidney failure.

Between 1992 and 2021, exposure to heat killed an average of 33 workers a year, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data cited in a November report by a government advisory panel. Thousands more are injured every year. Experts say the numbers are an undercount. And the hottest year on record, last year, isn’t included in the statistics. State-level data and protections are spotty.

California, which has long had an outdoor heat standard, is poised to adopt indoor worker protections this spring. Employers must also provide water, shade and other relief to outdoor workers in Oregon and Washington state when temperatures are high, and Colorado farmworkers are entitled to water and rest. Indoor workers have protections in Minnesota and Oregon, according to OSHA.

OSHA is contemplating a national standard that would require employers to offer rest breaks, places for workers to cool down and other relief when temperatures rise to levels that regulators deem unsafe. At warehouses and other indoor job sites, businesses might also be required to cool their buildings.

Employers say they worry OSHA could impose infeasible break schedules and cooling mandates, and burdensome record-keeping. In meetings last year with OSHA officials, some employers said they already protect workers from high temperatures and a new standard is unnecessary.

Many businesses have asked for flexibility based on industry and location.

“It’s quite the challenge to write one standard that’s going to really be able to address all the unique conditions and scenarios that workers might be working in,” said Kevin Cannon, senior director of safety and health services at the Associated General Contractors of America. “Let contractors or employers come up with a plan or a scheme that fits their operations.”

Parker said OSHA is taking business concerns into account and any rule will address “a broad range of issues in a broad range of workplaces.”

He added, “We cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach.” 

Congressional Democrats are pushing for legislation to require OSHA to enact temporary standards while it completes a permanent regulation. But the bill is unlikely to pass the GOP-controlled House, which generally opposes regulations on business.

“If we just get five or six Republicans who are willing to say that working shouldn’t be a death sentence, we could get this passed,” Rep. Greg Casar (D-Tex.) told me.

In June, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, signed a law eliminating local heat ordinances in Austin, Dallas and other cities that required employers to give outdoor construction workers water breaks. He said on X that the measure would “cut red tape & help businesses thrive.”

“If the state of Texas isn’t going to step up and take care of their workers, take care of our community, then it’s the responsibility of the federal government to do so,” Casar said.

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