The Biden administration announced Monday that it will begin crafting a standard to protect workers from heat as the federal government wrestles with a growing public health threat exacerbated by climate change.
The news: The White House said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will publish an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking, the first step in the process for designing federal regulations, in the Federal Register next month.
Extreme heat kills more Americans than any other climate-related hazard, yet the federal government currently does not have a federal worker safety rule despite decades of pushing from activists, workers’ rights groups and public health officials, a POLITICO and E&E News investigation found. The government also likely undercounts the number of workplace deaths and injuries that result from heat stress each year.
“Rising temperatures pose an imminent threat to millions of American workers exposed to the elements, to kids in schools without air conditioning, to seniors in nursing homes without cooling resources, and particularly to disadvantaged communities. My Administration will not leave Americans to face this threat alone,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.
Context: The actions come as part of the Biden administration’s interagency efforts to address extreme heat, sparked in part by record-breaking heat and wildfires this summer that resulted in hundreds of deaths and illnesses.
It is “virtually certain” that climate change, mostly from burning fossil fuels, has made heatwaves hotter, more intense and last longer, scientists said in a sweeping United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report this summer.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported there were 43 work-related deaths due to environmental heat exposure in 2019, and at least 2,410 others suffered serious injuries and illnesses, but the Labor Department says heat illness is “largely preventable, and commonly under-reported.”
States such as California, Washington and Minnesota have heat-related standards in place to protect workers.
Details: While the rulemaking process will take many months, the Biden administration also committed to more near-term actions.
The White House said OSHA will expand workplace enforcement on days where the heat index exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit by sending more people to investigate complaints. It will also expand education for employers on how to prevent heat illness.
The administration will also develop a “national emphasis program” for heat inspections that prioritizes check-ins at industries such as construction and agriculture, where studies have shown outdoor workers are at high risk. So, too, are people working in poorly ventilated warehouses, factories and meatpacking facilities.
“Throughout the nation, millions of workers face serious hazards from high temperatures both outdoors and indoors,” said Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. “Amid changing climate, the growing frequency and intensity of extreme heat events is increasing the dangers workers face, especially for workers of color who disproportionately work in essential jobs in tough conditions.”