​Construction workers

Construction workers rebuild the I-69 Southwest/I-610 West Loop Interchange during a heatwave in Houston, Texas on July 14, 2023.

(Photo: Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images)

110+ Dems Push Biden Admin to Enact New Worker Protections Amid 'Dire Threat' of Extreme Heat

"President Biden and OSHA have the opportunity to protect workers and to save lives," said Rep. Greg Casar. "Greg Abbott will be on the wrong side of history."

More than 110 congressional Democrats on Monday implored President Joe Biden's administration to immediately enact a federal standard to protect workers from extreme heat.

The demand for executive action comes amid weeks of record-busting high temperatures propelled by the fossil fuel-driven climate emergency, which continues to intensify as the U.S. and other rich nations fail to adequately slash greenhouse gas pollution. It was led by Rep. Greg Casar (Texas), who says a new Republican-authored Texas law preempting local governments from implementing many progressive policies, including measures to safeguard workers, has made the need for federal intervention indisputable.

"Protection from extreme heat is a matter of life and death for many workers and their families across the United States," says a letter the lawmakers sent to Julie Su, acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), and Douglas Parker, the DOL's assistant secretary for occupational safety and health.

The letter calls for "the fastest possible implementation of an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) workplace heat standard to ensure that millions of people can go to work with greater confidence that they will return to their families alive and uninjured."

Public Citizen estimates that exposure to extreme heat kills up to 2,000 workers and causes at least 170,000 injuries each year in the U.S. alone. The risks and consequences of heat stress are borne overwhelmingly by low-income employees, and farmworkers are particularly vulnerable to its deadly effects. According to the progressive advocacy group, an effective OSHA heat standard would save lives and prevent at least 50,000 injuries annually.

"Bought-and-paid-for politicians like Greg Abbott are stripping workers of their right to a water break in the middle of a historic heatwave... Democrats are going to stand up for common sense and for working people."

"This summer will be particularly dangerous," states the letter to the DOL. Last month was the hottest June on record, and July—which has already seen the hottest day and week in modern history—is expected to break all previous monthly records. While it's likely that 2023 will go down as the hottest year ever, scientists said last week that newly arrived El Niño conditions are projected to make 2024 even hotter. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned repeatedly that heatwaves will increase in frequency, duration, and intensity with each additional degree of temperature rise.

"Urgent action is needed to prevent more deaths," the letter stresses. "Heatwaves are associated with increases in death rates, driven not only by deaths directly caused by extreme heat but also by increases in deaths from heart attacks, respiratory illnesses, and cerebrovascular diseases. Heatwaves are also associated with increased hospital admissions for cardiovascular, kidney, and respiratory disorders."

To make matters worse, "many workers whose jobs require prolonged exposure to extreme heat are not afforded paid time off or sick days," it continues. "Thus, any health complications caused by heat exposure can lead to missed work, missed wages, and financial instability for families."

Several entirely avoidable heat-related workplace deaths have occurred so far this year. The letter cites two: On June 19, an electrical lineman died from heat exhaustion while working to restore power to households in East Texas; and on June 20, a postal worker collapsed and died while completing his Dallas route amid a heat index of 115°F.

Both deaths came just days after Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 2127 into law. This anti-democratic legislation, dubbed the "Death Star" bill by opponents, prohibits municipalities from adopting and enforcing policies that contradict what's allowed under nine broad areas of the Texas state code and even overturns existing regulations that do so.

When the law takes effect on September 1, ordinances recently ratified by city officials in Dallas and Austin that require construction companies to give workers water breaks when temperatures hit a certain threshold will be nullified, and ongoing efforts to enact similar protections, including one in San Antonio, will be outlawed.

"Bought-and-paid-for politicians like Greg Abbott are stripping workers of their right to a water break in the middle of a historic heatwave. It's insane," Casar tweeted. "Democrats are going to stand up for common sense and for working people."

As the letter points out, "Texas is the leading state for construction worker fatalities, and a University of Texas study found that 39% of Texas construction workers do not receive rest breaks on the job."

More workers have succumbed to heat illness in Texas than in any other state over the past three decades, and heat-related workplace deaths have doubled in Texas over the past 10 years.

But the problem extends far beyond the Lone Star State.

"In the past month, more than 55 million people were under heat alerts due to a heat wave spanning from Arizona to the Florida coast," the letter observes. "If a strong federal heat standard that includes routine breaks for rest, shade, and hydration is enacted this year, it would save lives across the country, while preventing any other statewide attempts to limit local heat protections."

"I urge the administration to move quickly to create this national heat standard to protect workers on the job."

The letter was co-led by Reps. Judy Chu (Calif.), Sylvia Garcia (Texas), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), and Bobby Scott (Va.), along with Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), Alex Padilla (Calif.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with the Democratic Party.

“These heatwaves are dangerous, they are life-threatening, and—with the devastating effects of climate change—they are only getting worse," Sanders said in a statement. "I urge the administration to move quickly to create this national heat standard to protect workers on the job."

While Texas Republicans move "to dismantle worker protections, some states such as California, Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington have taken a proactive approach to protecting workers from extreme heat by implementing statewide heat rules," the letter notes. "For example, at temperatures above 80°F, California requires employers to allow workers to take preventative cool-down rest in a shaded area at any time they feel at risk of overheating. In Minnesota, indoor workers may not be required to perform heavy work when the indoor heat index is too high."

"We urge that, when drafting the heat standard, OSHA incorporates the best practices from these state rules by using them as the baseline for the federal standard," wrote the congressional Democrats. "We additionally request that you model the standard after the provisions in the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatalities Prevention Act. This bill directs OSHA to establish an enforceable federal standard to ensure workers and employers can recognize and respond to the signs of heat stress."

The lawmakers emphasized that an OSHA heat standard should require employers to provide:

  1. Adequate hydration;
  2. Rest breaks;
  3. Areas for rest breaks that are shaded (in the case of outdoor work) or air-conditioned (in the case of indoor work);
  4. Medical services and training to address signs and symptoms of heat-related illness; and
  5. A plan for acclimatization to high-heat work conditions.

"Given the dire threat to the lives of workers exposed to extreme heat, we encourage you to mobilize all of the resources of the Department of Labor and the Biden administration that are necessary for implementing this standard as soon as possible," they added.

The letter from congressional Democrats comes several months after the attorneys general of California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania submitted a petition exhorting OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard (ETS) to protect workers who are exposed to dangerously high temperatures by May 1, prior to the start of summer.

While the AGs expressed support for OSHA's recent move to initiate rulemaking for a permanent heat standard, they lamented that this process "is expected to take several years, leaving millions of outdoor and indoor workers exposed to dangerous levels of heat in the interim."

In the meantime, an ETS "would fill this regulatory void during the hottest months of the year when workers are most likely to experience extreme workplace heat exacerbated by climate change," the AGs wrote.

As Casar put it Monday on social media: "President Biden and OSHA have the opportunity to protect workers and to save lives. Greg Abbott will be on the wrong side of history."

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