According to climate scientists, the summer of 2023 marked Earth’s highest average temperatures in recorded history. On July 4, our planet saw the hottest day on record, with many regions of the world suffering through temperatures soaring well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
For people whose jobs require them to labor hours in the sun, those conditions are dangerous — even deadly.
This extreme heat has caused workers in outdoor industries such as construction, farming, and landscaping to experience nausea, throbbing headaches, cramping, and blurred vision. With experts warning that climate trends will likely worsen in the coming years, safety regulations for these workers can no longer be put on the back burner.
Current legislation protecting workers from heat stress is not enough
Specific nationwide legislation related to heat stress is non-existent, meaning workplace issues relating to extreme heat fall under OSHA’s “general duty” clause. In essence, this is a catch-all regulation covering workplace dangers that don’t have their own regulations.
Because of the clause’s ambiguity, authorities have difficulty holding businesses liable for procedures that protect against heat-related illnesses and injuries. Rather than requiring businesses to ensure their employees have access to sufficient amounts of water, shade, and rest before an incident occurs, OSHA typically only issues fines after a worker has been killed or injured.
These legal barriers leave most American workers in industries such as construction, agriculture, and landscaping with minimal legal safeguards against excessive heat.
Proposed protections for workers threatened by extreme heat
The federal government is currently in the midst of a lengthy process to establish heat safety standards. In 2021, President Biden tasked OSHA to begin outlining a nationwide heat standard. However, given the red tape associated with establishing a national standard, states must currently rely on their own legislatures or labor agencies to issue heat safeguards for the workplace.
California was the first to implement mandatory heat safety regulations in 2006. Since then, only Oregon, Washington, Maryland, Nevada, and Colorado have followed. Unfortunately, Colorado’s legislation only applies to workers in the agricultural sector.
Water, rest, and shade are the three primary factors between workers and heat-related injuries, but only a handful of states have regulations guaranteeing them to workers. In fact, one state is actually moving in the opposite direction. Texas state legislators recently passed a bill stripping local governments of the power to regulate workplace issues, including heat safety measures. They concluded that strict workplace rules placed an undue burden on businesses operating throughout the state, especially in the construction sector, which is experiencing rapid growth.
Why heat-related regulations are needed
OSHA reports that 121 workers died on the job due to heat between 2017 and 2022, though this number is inaccurately low because deaths due to heat are frequently attributed to other workplace accidents or underlying health conditions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 436 on-the-job deaths caused by heat exposure since 2011.
In addition to death, working in extreme heat poses other serious health risks, including renal failure. A study from the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine reveals that workers can undergo acute kidney damage after only one day of fieldwork in high temperatures.
OSHA reports that between 50-70% of heat-related deaths occur in a worker’s first few days on the job, with construction, agricultural labor, and landscaping being the three most deadly heat-related occupations. The findings relate that workers need to build gradual tolerance to the heat.
According to the CDC, this process of acclimatization should consist of gradually increasing a person’s workload over 7 to 14 days, stating, “Acclimatization requires two hours of exposure per day, which can be broken into two one-hour periods.” Today, only employers in Washington, Oregon, and California are obligated to offer acclimatization to their workers.
Tips that can help workers struggling with heat stress
In 2021, OSHA began work on a nationwide standard to protect outdoor workers from heat stress, but it will be years before these procedures are finalized and put into effect. Legislation is not coming in the near future, and struggling employees need help dealing with the risks they face right now.
You can help these employees by supporting local worker safety organizations. In local legislatures, even the voices of a few passionate and concerned advocates can dramatically affect changes in legal policy.
Additionally, if you manage employees who work outdoors, ask them how you can make their work safer and more pleasant. Educate your staff about the signs of heat stress, and be sure to distribute that information in their native language. Implement buddy systems so employees can look out for one another — as well as themselves — and teach them how to recognize the symptoms of heat-related illnesses and get medical help to those who need it.
Our nation relies on the work of farmers, construction workers, garbage collectors, airport tarmac workers, and countless others, yet we refuse to offer them adequate protection. With extreme heat expected to become even more severe over the next three decades, we must enact worker safety regulations and heat protection standards now in order to keep these employees safe.