Peggy Frank, a 63-year-old California postal worker — and also a mother and grandmother — died last week while working her usual route in unusually hot weather. Frank’s heat-related death was not a freak occurrence, nor was it unusual.
“An average of more than 2.2 million workers in the agriculture or construction industries worked in extreme heat each day,” according to according to a report released yesterday by Public Citizen, in support of a petition by more than 130 organizations for an OSHA heat standard. High heat — and especially working in high heat — can cause serious heat-related illnesses and death. It can also worsen other conditions such as heart disease and asthma.
The report cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics which concludes that “exposure to excessive environmental heat stress killed 783 U.S. workers and seriously injured 69,374 workers from 1992 through 2016,” and these numbers are probably significantly underestimated because many heat-related deaths are registered as heart attacks. Construction workers and farm workers are the occupations most at risk.
Although it seems hard to believe, almost 50 years after OSHA was created, the agency still has no occupational heat standard. High heat has been plaguing workers for a long, long time — pretty much since God said “Let there be light.” We’ve known about the hazards of heat stroke and how to prevent them for a long time as well.
And, of course, the problem has gotten much worse since the beginning of time. The groups petitioning OSHA — which include Public Citizen, Farmworker Justice, Interfaith Worker Justice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, United Farm Workers, United Food and Commercial Workers Union and several other labor unions — tied the need for an OSHA heat standard to global warming which is significantly increasing the risk to workers. The petition noted that
Global warming is resulting in more frequent days of extreme heat, and record-breaking summers are now becoming the norm. 2017 was the second-hottest year on record, surpassed only by 2016. Indeed, 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001…. Record-setting years will be common in the coming decades, as temperatures are projected to increase by 2.5°F (1.4°C) for the period 2021–2050 relative to 1976–2005 even if we aggressively reduce greenhouse gas pollution worldwide.
Groups Petition OSHA For A Heat Standard
Yesterday, more than 130 organizations announced a petition to OSHA for a heat standard that would protect workers from the hazards of high heat. Joining the press conference were former OSHA Directors Dr. Eula Bingham and Dr. David Michaels as well as former California/OSHA Director Ellen Widess. The press conference, which included the passionate statement of a man whose brother died of heat exposure, can be heard here.
Federal OSHA, which concluded that extreme heat was a factor in the deaths of at least six workers in 2017, has been concerned about the problem for many years. The agency launched a national heat education campaign in 2012, following successful efforts to prevent heat-related deaths among workers cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico. OSHA borrowed CalOSHA’s their “Water, Rest, Shade” campaign and developed a cell-phone heat app, that would analyze the hazards of heat for workers in their geographical area, and recommend measures to protect themselves. (Available from the Apple Store or from Google Play.) OSHA also increased enforcement under its General Duty Clause, which the agency uses when there is no standard. But, according to former OSHA head David Michaels, the Obama administration declined to launch rulemaking for a heat standard due to lack of time and resources while working on the silica, beryllium and other OSHA standards issued during the last administration.
Three OSHA state-plan states — California, Washington, and Minnesota (indoor) — have heat standards, leaving 130 million workers in the rest of the country who lack the protections of a national OSHA heat standard. The military also has strict heat standards and in 2016, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued the third version of its criteria for a recommended heat standard “which includes the following elements: heat stress threshold, rest breaks, hydration, shade, heat acclimatization plan, PPE, exposure monitoring, hazard notification, worker training, medical monitoring, injury surveillance, and recordkeeping.”
The report and petition argue that federal OSHA’s current efforts and voluntary activities are not enough. The report points out that an OSHA analysis of heat-related fatality cases show that “17 of 23 fatalities (74 percent) involved workers who were in their first three days on the job, and eight (35 percent) victims were on the very first day of work,” because employer did not follow industry recommendations to allow workers to acclimatize, or get used to the heat for a few days before heavy work.
Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-CA), who spoke at the press conference, promised to introduce legislation that would require OSHA to issue a heat standard.
The petition outlined a number of elements of an OSHA heat standard, which would reqiure employers to:
- Provide mandatory rest breaks with increased frequency in times of extreme heat and significant exertion.
- Provide access to shaded and otherwise cool conditions for employees to rest during breaks.
- Provide personal protective equipment, such as water-cooled and air-cooled garments.
- Make provisions for adequate hydration.
- Implement heat acclimatization plans to help new workers safely adjust to hot conditions.
- Regularly monitor both the environmental heat load and employees’ metabolic heat loads during hot conditions.
- Medically monitor at-risk employees.
- Notify employees of heat stress hazards.
- Institute a heat-alert plan outlining procedures to follow when heat waves are forecast.
- Train workers on heat stress risks and preventive measures.
- Maintain and report records relating to this standard.
- Institute whistleblower protection programs to ensure that employees who witness violations of the heat stress safety standard are free to speak up.
This blog was originally published at Confined Space on July 18, 2018. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).