By Shanna Devine, Public Citizen
Heat is the leading weather-related killer in the U.S., and the climate crisis is resulting in more days of extreme heat. Alarmingly, 18 of the last 19 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001. With record-breaking summers becoming the norm, outdoor and indoor workers across a wide variety of workplaces are at greater risk for heat related illnesses. Although no one is immune to extreme heat, farmworkers are disproportionally impacted due to their long hours spent outside with limited access to shade.
Despite the known risks of heat stress that are intensifying with global heating, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has not developed a federal heat stress standard for workers. Rather, OSHA polices heat-related injuries and deaths only by enforcing its general duty clause, a “catch all” provision that requires employers to provide safe workplaces. Enforcement is scarce and, by definition, reactive rather than preventive. Further, a recent court case may make it more difficult for OSHA to hold employers accountable for heat-violations under the general duty clause. In the absence of a federal standard, states and some municipalities are taking measures to protect workers from heat. A national network is seeking to build on those precedents by pushing for federal worker protections against heat.
In July 2018, a broad coalition of more than 130 labor, environmental, and public health organizations, including the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP), as well as former OSHA officials, petitioned OSHA for a federal heat stress standard for outdoor and indoor workers. The petition builds on recommendations by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to OSHA to issue such a standard. Nearly a year after the submission of our petition, OSHA has yet to provide a formal response. Given the agency’s failure to act, Congress is considering legislation to require OSHA to protect workers from rising temperatures.
The Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act (H.R. 3668), led by Representatives Judy Chu (D-CA) and Raul Grijalva (D-CA) in partnership with House Committee on Education and Labor Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA) and members of the Committee, is commonsense legislation that fills this critical health and safety gap. The bill directs OSHA to develop a heat stress standard for indoor and outdoor workers that includes required protections ranging from access to water, rest, and shade, to protections against retaliation for reporting heat dangers on the job. Among other protections, it also requires heat prevention materials to be provided in the language understood by most workers, and procedures for compensating piece rate workers for required heat-related rest breaks.
During a related hearing on the bill in the House of Representatives last week, Arturo Rodriquez, former president of the United Farm Workers, detailed the dangers of heat on farmworkers, and the progress they have seen in California under its state-level heat protection standard for outdoor workers. In addition to benefitting from the experiences by our partners in California, the heat protection coalition has a wealth of expertise nationwide.
For instance, last week (from July 14-20), AFOP’s network of trainers went into the fields to train 2,332 farmworkers on how to prevent a heat-related illness through its Heat Stress Prevention Training Marathon. Using AFOP’s low-literacy and bilingual curriculum, trainers offered the agricultural workers and employers the tools they needed to protect themselves from a heat-related illness. The event was a great success! Even though the official marathon has ended, more farmworkers will continue to be trained on this essential information all summer long.
To support farmworkers and all workers laboring under dangerously hot conditions, ask your Member of Congress to sponsor the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, or consider contact OSHA in support of a heat stress standard!
Shanna Devine is the worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. In that capacity, she plays a leading role managing Congress Watch’s policy and advocacy on occupational health and safety, including whistleblower rights for public and private sector employees.