A new report by Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, argues that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is failing to protect workers from the dangers of unsafe heat. Arguing that the escalating effects of climate change pose an increasingly perilous situation for workers, the report calls for “immediate action.”
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health made clear half a century ago that heat stress is a “significant hazard,” the report notes, though it took OSHA until 2021 to begin developing a rule concerning heat stress, and it is not expected to finish this rule for several more years. In the meantime, Public Citizen’s report found that unsafe heat will endanger many thousands of workers, with disproportionate effects on Hispanic/Latino and African-American workers.
A brief outline of the report’s findings include the likelihood that extreme heat is “responsible for 170,000 work-related injuries every year, and possibly many more.” Heat exposure, in turn, accounts for 600 to 2,000 worker fatalities each year, “ranking it among the top three causes – and possibly the top cause – of occupational fatalities.” The workers most vulnerable to heat-related injuries and fatalities are farm workers, the report states, noting that “the vast majority” of this group are immigrants, including undocumented immigrants.
In theory, Public Citizen argues, workplace standards designed to mitigate heat stress revolve around fairly simple measures: “providing adequate water, shade and breaks.” Indeed, a standard issued by the state of California led to a 30% reduction in heat-related injuries, which the report estimates could translate to an annual decrease of 50,000 injuries and illnesses were a national standard put in place.
In a statement to Mother Jones about the Public Citizen report, Assistant Secretary of Labor Doug Parker noted that it takes time for OSHA to develop effective rules. “We will continue to improve our efforts and explore opportunities to help employers and workers decrease the risk of heat exposure,” he said.
More information on the increasing risks of heat-related injuries and deaths to US workers, especially farm workers, is available via Public Citizen and Mother Jones.