Heat-Related Deaths and Injuries Among US Workers Highlight Gap in Protections

Santos Brizuela spent over two decades toiling outdoors, enduring a bout of heatstroke while cutting sugarcane in Mexico and chronic laryngitis from repeated sun exposure in various jobs. But last summer, working in a Las Vegas construction crew, he hit a breaking point. Sun exposure triggered immediate headaches and loss of appetite. Now at a maintenance job, Brizuela, 47, can take breaks and has access to health protections he previously lacked.

A historic heat wave sweeping the Southwest and other parts of the US this summer is shedding light on a severe yet under-addressed consequence of climate change: the increasing deaths and injuries among people who work in extreme heat, both indoors and outdoors. Many of these workers are migrants in low-wage positions.

While federal and state governments have long established procedures for environmental risks intensified by climate change, such as droughts, floods, and wildfires, protections against extreme heat have generally lagged. According to Ladd Keith, a planning assistant professor and research associate at the University of Arizona, there is no designated authority responsible for extreme heat protections at the state or federal level, resulting in a governance gap.

The US currently lacks a federal heat standard, despite efforts from President Joe Biden’s administration to establish one. Most of the hottest states lack specific heat-related standards as well. Workers in many states exposed to extreme heat are ostensibly protected by the “general duty clause,” requiring employers to mitigate hazards that could lead to serious injury or death. However, this clause lacks consistent benchmarks for identifying serious heat hazards.

Juanita Constible, a senior advocate at the National Resources Defense Council, states, “What’s unsafe isn’t always clear.” Many states are adopting their versions of a federal “emphasis” program to increase inspections, ensuring employers provide water, shade, and breaks. Nonetheless, enforcement still relies on the general duty clause.

Addressing the Governance Gap

Extreme heat is conspicuously absent from the list of disasters to which the Federal Emergency Management Agency responds. While floodplain managers are widespread, only a few “chief heat officer” positions exist to coordinate extreme heat planning, located in Miami-Dade County, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.

Although federal experts recommended extreme heat protections since 1972, it wasn’t until 1997 and 2006 that Minnesota and California, respectively, adopted the first statewide measures. The trend slowly grew, with more states joining in the early 2000s. As heatwaves become longer and more intense, the situation is evolving.

Colorado strengthened its rules last year, requiring regular breaks in extreme heat and cold and providing water and shade breaks when temperatures reach 26.7°C. Washington state updated its 15-year-old heat safety standards last month, lowering the temperature triggering cool-down breaks and other protections. Oregon made temporary heat protection rules permanent in 2021, while other states consider similar laws.

Arizona’s Governor Katie Hobbs implemented new regulations through the heat emphasis program and declared an emergency due to extreme heat. Nevada adopted a version of this program as well. However, a separate bill defining extreme heat and mandating protections failed, even after raising the temperature threshold. Democratic lawmakers aim to pass these protections through regulation before the next summer.

The Biden administration introduced regulations in 2021 to develop heat safety standards and enhance protective measures for at-risk private sector workers. However, these mandates require several more years of review. A Democratic US Congress group introduced a bill to expedite the process by legislating heat standards, applying to all states and the private sector but excluding most other public sector workers. Consistent state standards are crucial due to differing conditions and implementation concerns.

Challenges and Opposition

Eleazar Castellanos, who trains workers on dealing with extreme heat at Arriba Las Vegas, noted two types of employers during his construction career. Some ensure access to water, shade, and rest, while others threaten consequences for requesting preventative measures.

Heat protection laws face industry opposition, including chambers of commerce and business associations. They argue that a blanket mandate would be impractical across various industries. Vince Saavedra from Southern Nevada Building Trades emphasizes that industry opposition often comes down to financial concerns.

The Nevada bill’s failure, passed by the Senate on party lines, is attributed to partisan politics and competing bills during the limited legislative session. However, as the need for regulations becomes more evident, the push for protections continues.

This story is published from a syndicated news agency feed and has not been edited by the Smartkhabrinews staff.

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