Too Hot to Work? America's Next Big Labor Battle

The extreme heat in the United States is causing significant issues for American workers, local businesses, and the country's economy. July marked the hottest month on record globally, with scorching temperatures experienced across the U.S. South. Tragically, at least two workers in Texas lost their lives due to heat exposure. Heat stress poses various risks, including heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat rashes. Additionally, heat can increase the likelihood of injuries in workers, such as sweaty palms, fogged-up safety glasses, dizziness, and burns from contact with hot surfaces or steam.

While there is a minimum working temperature set by law in the U.S., there is no maximum working temperature established at the federal level. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides recommendations for employers to prevent heat stress in the workplace, but these are not legally binding. Recognizing the urgent need to address this issue, the Biden administration has directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to update worker safety policies in response to extreme heat. However, the development of federal standards can take considerable time, leaving the matter in the hands of individual states.

Efforts to establish a federal standard for temperature levels and other heat-related requirements are reflected in a bill introduced by Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, known as the Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act. This legislation aims to create a universal heat standard requirement through OSHA to protect workers exposed to high temperatures. However, the bill's chances of passage are uncertain due to the political divisions surrounding safety regulations. It is worth noting that the opposition to safety regulations in the workplace originated during the Trump presidency and his administration's push for deregulation.

The consequences of extreme heat extend beyond human health and safety. The country is also suffering significant economic losses. A recent study conducted by the Adrienne-Arsht Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center estimates that the U.S. loses an average of $100 billion annually in labor productivity due to heat-related impacts. If no significant action is taken to reduce emissions and adapt to extreme heat, labor productivity losses could double to almost $200 billion by 2030 and reach $500 billion by 2050.

Labor experts emphasize the need for substantial changes in the way Americans work in response to the increasing frequency of extreme heat. Sectors such as outdoor work, oil and gas, warehouses, and construction are particularly affected. High temperatures lead to reduced work efficiency, increased likelihood of errors and accidents, and lost work hours. Achieving meaningful change requires transforming factory, warehouse, and workplace designs to protect workers from extreme heat.

Addressing this issue primarily falls within the purview of state lawmakers and businesses themselves. California stands as an example, having introduced effective safety regulations, such as setting a maximum outdoor working temperature and implementing regulations for frequent shade breaks and access to water. However, progress varies across states due to opposition from industry groups and lobbyists. Political battles over safety regulations have emerged in states like Texas and Nevada, where laws affecting mandatory water breaks and heat safety regulations face controversy and delays.

Investing in workplace safety measures may appear costly for businesses, but neglecting to address heat-related risks could have even greater financial consequences. Some businesses have taken proactive steps to protect their workers by exceeding state-mandated regulations. For example, DPR Construction, a general contractor based in California, has implemented heat safety procedures that go beyond legal requirements, including cooling stations, electrolyte drinks, and additional breaks.

Experts agree that change cannot rely solely on businesses and will require committed political action. The effective resolution of the issue demands both state and federal movement. While progress has been made in states like New York, where workplace safety garners more attention, the federal bill addressing the issue currently faces challenges in making progress.

Change in addressing heat-related risks and climate issues more broadly may take time in the United States. However, the urgency of the situation and the potential impacts on workers and the economy highlights the need for immediate action to protect workers and mitigate the negative consequences of extreme heat.  

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post