This summer is giving us a glimpse at the dangerous future of work


The summer of record-breaking heat waves has brought significant challenges to various regions in the United States. Areas such as the South and Phoenix experienced prolonged periods of scorching temperatures, with Phoenix enduring a month-long streak of temperatures above 110 degrees. Currently, another wave of searing temperatures is affecting the central US, with the heat index surpassing 120 degrees in many cities. 

While the Midwest is accustomed to harsh winters, extreme summers pose unique difficulties. Some buildings lack sufficient air conditioning, and infrastructure, including asphalt roads, may not have been designed to withstand extreme heat. As a result, many jobs become significantly more difficult and dangerous as the mercury rises. Heat-related deaths are not limited to construction sites and farm fields, as workers in factories, warehouses, restaurants, and delivery services are also exposed to dangerous temperatures. Even indoor environments with cooling mechanisms carry risks, as faulty or weak HVAC systems are common.

The impact of heat on workers' health is evident, with data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics highlighting the prevalence of heat-related injuries and illnesses. Between 2017 and 2022, 121 workers in the US died due to heat-related causes, though this number is believed to be an undercount. Additionally, nearly 34,000 work-related heat injuries and illnesses requiring time away from the job were recorded between 2011 and 2020. Tragically, recent incidents, such as the deaths of a letter carrier in Dallas and a farm worker in Phoenix, underscore the severity of the issue.

The challenge only intensifies as climate change continues to drive up summer temperatures across the country. By 2050, some cities could see average summer highs rise by as much as 6 degrees. Consequently, outdoor workers will face additional risks from factors like wildfire smoke and an increased prevalence of diseases carried by insects.

Unfortunately, despite the growing dangers, there are currently no federal regulations establishing thresholds for when heat becomes too hazardous for employees to work. Nor does the government mandate specific provisions that employers must provide in such conditions, such as water, more frequent breaks, shade, or air conditioning. This lack of regulations contributes to the persistence of unsafe conditions for many workers.

Heat-related health impacts are not limited to physical exertion alone. Even the most fit individuals can overheat at a Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (which accounts for humidity, wind speed, sun exposure, and other factors) of about 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Exposure to this level of heat for as little as six hours can result in death. Yet, even before reaching such extreme temperatures, heat negatively affects work efficiency. In the US, the optimal temperature for physical outdoor work is around 57.7 degrees Fahrenheit, as productivity declines beyond this point. 

As workers overheat, they may experience weakness, dizziness, slurred speech, and other initial signs that can lead to heat stroke, rhabdomyolysis (muscle tissue breakdown), or even heart attacks. Furthermore, heat tolerance can decrease after experiencing heat stroke, and researchers are investigating potential links between working in heat and kidney disease observed in agricultural workers.

In summary, the impact of heat on workers' health and safety cannot be ignored. Workers in various sectors, from construction to agriculture, face significant risks in the face of rising temperatures. Urgent action is needed to implement protective measures and regulations that prioritize worker well-being in extreme heat conditions.  

The lack of heat acclimatization is a significant factor that contributes to the deaths of workers due to extreme heat. Many workers who die from heat-related causes do so within the first few days on the job. Research shows that during the first week of work, a significant number of workers can experience heatstroke. This emphasizes the need for appropriate measures to protect workers from extreme heat, especially during their initial days of employment.

Extreme heat also has a detrimental effect on productivity. A study by The Lancet found that about 470 billion hours of labor were lost globally in 2021 due to extreme heat, with the US alone losing 2.5 billion hours. This loss of productivity affects various sectors such as construction, manufacturing, services, and agriculture. Workers tend to slow down or work with less effort in extreme heat, which ultimately impacts the overall efficiency of the economy.

The aviation industry is no exception to the challenges posed by extreme heat. Airport ground services workers, including cabin cleaners and baggage handlers, report facing severe heat conditions on the job. The lack of proper breaks and functioning air conditioning exacerbates the risks faced by these workers. Illnesses, such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke, can occur due to prolonged exposure to extreme heat without adequate rest and cooling measures.

Addressing heat illness in the workplace doesn't require complicated solutions. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has long recommended straightforward measures, including providing water, rest, and shade, and allowing workers to ease into their jobs during their first week to acclimatize to the heat. However, the lack of workplace heat protection laws is a prevailing issue. While some states have established their own heat standards, the majority of states in the US lack specific regulations to protect workers from extreme heat.

The prospect of a federal OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) heat standard is still in progress, but the complexity of the process hinders its timely implementation. Additionally, political factors and resistance to workplace safety rules pose significant challenges. While OSHA can use the "General Duty" clause to enforce workplace safety standards, each element of the clause in heat-related cases can be legally vulnerable.

Efforts are being made to address this issue at various levels. Advocacy groups, including Farmworker Justice and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), are advocating for stronger heat standards and have implemented initiatives to protect workers, such as the Fair Food Program. Some states, like California and Oregon, have implemented their own heat safety rules to protect outdoor and indoor workers.

In conclusion, it is critical to enact protective measures and regulations that prioritize the well-being of workers in extreme heat conditions. Providing access to water, rest, and shade, and allowing for acclimatization can significantly reduce the risks faced by workers. Stronger heat protection laws and the implementation of comprehensive safety programs are essential to ensure the safety and health of workers in the face of rising temperatures.  

Several unions, including the United Steelworkers, the Teamsters, the SEIU, ROC United, and National Nurses United, are actively engaging with major employers to advocate for regulations that address heat-related hazards in the workplace. For example, the Teamsters recently negotiated a contract with UPS that requires new company vehicles to have air conditioning and existing delivery cars will be retrofitted with cooling systems. 

However, not all employers and industry representatives are supportive of the idea of a potential OSHA heat standard. The American Farm Bureau Federation, which represents farm producers, has expressed concerns about new regulations imposing burdens on farmers and ranchers and potentially leading to economic losses. They argue that the General Duty clause already offers sufficient protection for workers and suggest focusing on individual employee responsibility and personal health choices outside the workplace.

This perspective highlights the belief that it is not merely the heat itself that poses a danger to workers, but rather the employer's failure to implement necessary protective measures. The reluctance or refusal of some employers to prioritize worker safety contributes to the risks faced by their employees.

Overall, there is a growing need for comprehensive heat protection measures in the workplace, and it is essential for employers and industry representatives to proactively address and prioritize the well-being of workers. By implementing appropriate measures and regulations, employers can help mitigate the risks and protect the health and safety of their employees.  

According to a recent report by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal, Target has implemented a different approach compared to other companies like Amazon and Goldman Sachs when it comes to bringing employees back to their corporate offices. While many businesses in Minneapolis are unhappy with Target's policy, Target's corporate employees are not subject to a company-wide mandate to return to the office. Instead, managers have the authority to set requirements for their teams, but Target has adopted a "flex your day" approach. This means that employees have the flexibility to pursue a hybrid schedule, rather than being required to come into the office for a certain number of days each week.

A Target spokesperson explained that over the past few years, the company has embraced a hybrid working model at its headquarters, which promotes flexibility and collaboration among teams. Target believes that this strategic choice of hybrid working strengthens their headquarters team through empowerment, inclusivity, and adaptability. The company also emphasized its continued investment in the surrounding community and its longstanding commitment to Minneapolis, which has been its home for over 60 years.

However, some businesses in downtown Minneapolis, where Target's corporate headquarters are located, have expressed dissatisfaction with the policy. Restaurant owners, in particular, have reported significantly decreased foot traffic, particularly during lunchtime on weekdays. They are urging Target to do more to support the recovery of downtown Minneapolis.

Target's more relaxed stance on bringing employees back to the office contrasts with other major companies. For example, Amazon requires employees to report to an Amazon office at least three days a week and closely monitors attendance. Meta (formerly known as Facebook) also plans to require three days of in-office work starting in September. On the other hand, Goldman Sachs is attempting to have employees return to its offices five days a week.

Stanford economist Nick Bloom suggests that many return-to-office mandates come from executives who have a different work style compared to their employees, who often have families and lives outside of their jobs. Bloom argues that forcing workers back to the office can negatively impact workforce diversity.

In summary, Target has opted for a hybrid working model at its corporate offices, giving managers the authority to set requirements for their teams while allowing employees the flexibility to pursue a hybrid schedule. However, not all businesses in downtown Minneapolis are happy with this approach, expressing concerns about decreased foot traffic. Other major companies have implemented stricter return-to-office policies, but some experts argue that such mandates may overlook the diverse needs and circumstances of the workforce.  

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