A worker harvests peaches

A worker harvests peaches off the trees at Pearson Farm on July 24, 2023 in Fort Valley, Georgia.

(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Democrats Propose Bill to Protect US Workers From 'Life-Threatening Heat'

"How many more workers will we let dangerous heat and callous employers kill before this nation acts?" asked one union leader.

Labor unions and climate groups applauded Wednesday as congressional Democrats introduced legislation to ensure the health and safety of workers exposed to dangerous heat as temperatures soar to record highs across the Northern Hemisphere.

Named for a California farmworker who died after picking grapes for 10 hours in 105°F, the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness, Injury, and Fatality Prevention Act is spearheaded by U.S. Reps. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Alma Adams (D-N.C.), Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), and Bobby Scott (D-Va.,) and Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), and Alex Padilla (D-Calif.).

"I will never forget Asunción Valdivia or how his tragic death could have been avoided," Chu said in a statement. "Whether on a farm, driving a truck, or working in a warehouse, workers like Asunción keep our country running while enduring some of the most difficult conditions—often without access to water or rest."

"The escalating climate crisis has led to sweltering temperatures and to a distressing increase in cases of workers collapsing and even losing their lives due to excessive heat," she continued. "To value our workforce and protect people's safety and lives, this bill will establish comprehensive and enforceable federal standards addressing heat stress on the job."

The legislation directs the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) at the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to create policies for heat exposure in indoor and outdoor environments.

"Asunción Valdivia was killed by extreme heat in 2004 while working to feed this nation," noted United Farm Workers (UFW) president Teresa Romero. "Since his death, we've also lost Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez in 2008, Florencio Gueta Vargas in 2021, and now Efraín López García and Dario Mendoza, both killed in July of 2023—just to name a few."

"Farmworker families have already lost far too many loved ones to deadly temperatures—and to deadly government inaction," she added, welcoming the bill. "How many more workers will we let dangerous heat and callous employers kill before this nation acts?"

In addition to UFW, the bill is backed by groups including the AFL-CIO, Earthjustice, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Migrant Legal Action Program, National Employment Law Project, Sierra Club, Public Citizen, Union of Concerned Scientists, UNITE HERE!, United Auto Workers, and United Steelworkers.

"Whether it's driving a catering truck in direct sun to stock departing planes with food and water or toiling in front of commercial appliances at maximum hotness in hotel kitchens, workers in both primarily outdoor and indoor spaces face record highs," said Gwen Mills, UNITE HERE! secretary treasurer. She commended the sponsors and urged Congress to swiftly pass the bill, calling it "the kind of federal intervention required for protecting ourselves from an increasingly more alarming climate crisis."

Juley Fulcher, a worker health and safety advocate at Public Citizen, pointed out that "working in the scorching heat, especially at the levels we've seen across the country this summer, can cause heat exhaustion, muscle and organ damage, cardiac arrest, heat stroke, and even death."

"Breathing in the wildfire smoke that has recently blanketed much of the nation triples the risk of death on extremely hot days," Fulcher continued. "Repetitive heat exhaustion from working in extreme heat—such as the unprecedented heatwaves that continue today—can cause long-term illnesses."

Teamsters general president Sean O'Brien—whose union just won a historic contract battle with United Parcel Service within days of what was expected to be the nation's largest single-employer strike—declared that "it's long past time for meaningful legislation" to protect workers from extreme heat.

"Paid breaks in cool spaces, access to water, and limitations on time exposed to heat are simply commonsense steps that should be mandated immediately," he said. "Waiting to implement these measures is unacceptable and will result in the further loss of lives."

Brown stressed that "no worker should have to endure life-threatening heat to provide for their family."

"We know too many workers still work in dangerous conditions, putting their health and safety on the line every day to provide for their families," the senator added. "There's not much dignity in a job where you fear for your health or your life."

On Monday, Brown, Cortez Masto, Chu, Grijalva, Padilla, and Scott partnered with Sen.Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as well as Reps. Greg Casar and Sylvia Garcia, both Texas Democrats, for a letter—endorsed by dozens of other lawmakers—to two DOL leaders calling for "the fastest possible implementation" of an OSHA 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."

The letter came after Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott last month signed House Bill 2127. The "Death Star" law, as it's called by critics, bans municipalities from passing policies that contradict nine broad areas of state law, and is set to kill certain heat rules.

To draw attention to the need for federal protections given the worsening fossil fuel-driven climate emergency, Casar on Tuesday joined advocacy groups and unions for a vigil and "thirst strike" on Capitol Hill. The congressman said that "the Biden administration must step in, override Abbott, and ensure heat protections for all Americans in all industries. Our government should work for working people, not for greedy corporations that exploit their workers and fill Abbott's campaign coffers."

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