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With Hundreds of Workers Dying, OSHA’s Denial of Petition for a Heat Stress Standard Is Shortsighted
In Denying Petition, OSHA Opts for Continued Employer Self-Policing Rather Than Accountability
WASHINGTON - July 5 - The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has denied yet another petition from Public Citizen calling for a life-saving regulation – an action particularly shortsighted given the searing temperatures we are seeing in the summer and the number of workers who are dying from heat, Public Citizen said today.
Over the past 20 years, at least 563 U.S. workers have died and more than 46,000 have suffered serious injuries from acute heat stress, an entirely preventable hazard. Yet there is no federal regulation in place to protect workers, despite decades of expert consensus that such a standard is both necessary and feasible. Public Citizen petitioned for such a standard last year, and OSHA recently denied it.
This year is, so far, already the hottest on record, and with an unseasonably warm summer expected, the toll on workers is likely to be even higher than in previous years.
“The epidemic of worker injury and death due to heat exposure is projected only to worsen with climate change,” said Dr. Sammy Almashat, researcher with Public Citizen’s Health Research Group and lead author of the petition. “OSHA’s denial makes explicit the agency’s position to ignore 40 years of expert consensus in the interest of placating industry.”
Dr. Thomas Bernard, a co-signer on Public Citizen’s petition, and a reviewer of the revised National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommendations for a heat stress standard 26 years ago, stated, “These deaths are completely preventable with just a few, inexpensive interventions, some of which have already been implemented in several states.The time is long overdue for a federal heat stress standard that will protect workers from dangerous heat exposure.”
Added Virginia Ruiz, attorney with Farmworker Justice and another co-signer on the petition, “Farmworkers suffer more than any other worker population from the effects of extreme heat. OSHA’s denial of our petition continues to leave adult and child farmworkers without the right to adequate water or a rest break, putting their lives at risk while picking our fruits and vegetables.”
In justifying its denial, OSHA pointed to the second iteration of its “education and outreach” campaign, alerting employers and workers to the dangers of heat exposure, as reason not to pursue a standard. OSHA lauded the campaign’s “success” without presenting any evidence of how the voluntary, self-enforcing campaign has led to a decrease in injuries or deaths from heat exposure.
In the absence of a standard, OSHA can hold employers accountable only through an enforcement mechanism called the General Duty Clause (GDC). In its letter, OSHA claimed it has “increased its focus on heat as a hazard during its [GDC] inspections.” However, an updated review of federal data since Public Citizen’s petition was researched shows that OSHA has issued only seven citations for unsafe heat practices since last August (when the last search was conducted by Public Citizen); North Carolina alone has issued as many during the same interval. And with federal penalties averaging just over $2,000 per violation, even these rare citations do not serve as anything close to a deterrent.
“While OSHA’s denial of our petition is not surprising given its recent inaction on issuing new safety and health regulations, its refusal to enact a standard, combined with its alarming under-enforcement, needlessly condemns additional tens of thousands of workers to serious injury or death from a completely preventable hazard over the next decade,” Almashat said.