As heat grips most of the United States, we’re all looking for ways to keep cool. Those who work in office buildings may take for granted the ability to work in a comfortable office environment, fearing only the moment in which they must leave their offices and face the heat. But there are many workers who can’t beat the heat right now. When public officials focus on seniors and children being most vulnerable, they neglect to mention those workers who put their lives at risk merely by continuing to do their jobs.
This week, most Americans are grappling with the high temperatures currently gripping our nation, with the forecast predicting more of the same until this weekend. (See AP article.) Three deaths have already been reported, and in some cities, officials are opening up public buildings for those who don’t have air conditioning. The heat wave seems to be the (un)natural culmination of what has already been reported as the hottest six months in U.S. history since daily temperatures were first officially recorded in 1895. (See Houston Chronicle article.)
But there’s one group of individuals who may not easily be able to escape the heat, and that’s workers whose job requires them to be outdoors all day long. Every summer, thousands of workers – particularly those in agriculture, landscaping, and construction – spend long days working in the hot sun. And every year, without fail, too many die or become ill due to heat exposure.
One of the most highly publicized cases of heat stroke was that of Korey Stringer, a 27 year-old member of the Minnesota Vikings football team who collapsed after two-and-a-half hours of practice in 90 degree heat. At the hospital, his core body temperature was recorded at 108 degrees. He died shortly thereafter of major organ failure. Stringer’s tragic story brought to light a serious workplace hazard that concerns thousands of workers every year. Last summer alone, 13 workers died from heat-related illness in California. (See Contra Costa Times article.) Unfortunately those deaths, mostly of immigrant farm workers, didn’t register on the national radar screen the way that the death of a NFL star did.
While heat-related illness isn’t the largest workplace hazard, it may be the most preventable. “Workers need to know how to avoid heat injuries and how to recognize signs of heat stress not only in themselves, but in their coworkers, too. By looking out for each other, they can help protect each other…. With increased awareness and some basic precautions, many of these illnesses and deaths can be prevented,” says Trese Louie, a safety and health specialist with OSHA.
In Canada, Labour Minister Steve Peters has issued a statement calling on employers “to take every precaution reasonable to ensure a worker is protected from heat stress.” The ministry reminded employers that they have a duty under the Occupational Health and Safety Act to take every precaution reasonable to protect a worker from oppressive conditions. Employers who don’t make sure their workplace is safe in hot conditions can face compliance orders and even prosecution. Dr. Leon Genesove, physician for the ministry of labour, said the advisory went out to “bring more awareness to the situation on what is the hottest work day of the year so far.” (See Toronto Star article.)
Yet here in the U.S., we don’t see similar pronouncements from the highest levels of government. In California, you might expect something, especially after the brutality of last summer’s heat, which led to California becoming the first state to adopt heat illness prevention regulations. The regulations require that outdoor employees have access to one quart of water per hour for the entire shift, that employees have the right to take a break in the shade for at least 5 minutes when they feel they need one, and that employers receive special training. To encourage compliance, fines of up to $25,000 per violation may be assessed on employers.
While many praise the new regulations, not everyone is happy with them. Critics point out that the law does not require mandatory breaks, but rather requires workers to ask for a break when they feel they need one. Dr. Robert Harrison, a former member of the OSHA Standards Board and professor of occupational medicine at UC San Francisco, states that it’s “risky for us to always rely on workers to ask for rest breaks.” This is especially so when the worker is paid by how much they harvest, because there is a strong financial incentive not to take breaks and to keep working. (See Contra Costa Times article.) But even critics acknowledge that they’re a start, and more than exists in other states.
However, while California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pushed for new regulations after last year’s farmworker deaths (See Desert Sun article), and lauded the enactment of permanent regulations which went into effect in June, his voice — and the voices of many other public officials — has been silent during this heat wave. Gov. Schwarzenegger instead has focused on energy conservation at the state level, requiring state offices to reduce thermostats and turn off non-essential lights. (See Governor’s Press Release.)
While energy conservation is of course a worthy goal, the Governor missed a prime opportunity to educate California employers and workers on the new regulations. California led the way in enacting these regulations, and Gov. Schwarzenegger’s influence could motivate other states to follow suit. Let’s hope that it doesn’t take too many tragic deaths in other states to encourage each state to remember its working population during this and the many other heat waves that are sure to come.
Note: Some of the material in this blog entry is excerpted from the Workplace Fairness special report, Summertime, and the Working Isn’t Easy: Workers Who Know Their Rights Are Less Likely to Get Burned. This special report, was written by summer law intern Katherine Watts, and is available at our website, www.workplacefairness.org.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Working in Hot Environments