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Lawmakers Push for National Heat-Related Worker Protections Amid Scorching Temperatures

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3 men in high-visibility clothing sit on the sidewalk of a city street.
LA City street services workers take a break in the shade of a nearby storefront as crews lay down new pavement on Ventura Boulevard on July 27, 2023, in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

California Sen. Alex Padilla announced new legislation Wednesday that would expedite new rules to protect workers toiling in scorching temperatures across the U.S.

Heat is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S., and the danger has  increased in recent years, particularly in industries such as agriculture and construction, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

But the nation’s first heat-specific workplace standards, which the federal agency began working on nearly two years ago, are not expected to be completed for at least several more years.

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In the absence of such rules, the Asunción Valdivia Act — named after a farmworker who died from heat stroke in California’s Central Valley in 2004 — would require OSHA to issue protections within a year of the bill’s enactment, such as requiring employers to provide cool drinking water and paid rest breaks.

“The administration should exercise its authority to protect workers immediately,” Padilla, who co-introduced the bill with fellow Dem. Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), told KQED. “Anybody that’s been subjected to the extreme heat the country has felt this last week knows the urgency of the matter.”

Under the bill, OSHA could start enforcing an interim heat-illness prevention regulation while it comes up with a final one.

A similar bill Padilla co-sponsored in 2021, which gave OSHA slightly over two years to issue an interim standard, did not advance in the last session of Congress. But Padilla said he hoped to garner more Republican support for the legislation this year, because red and blue states alike are grappling with heat waves.

“It’s happening in all states and the workers subjected to these extreme heat conditions come from across the political spectrum. And so partisan politics should not be an issue here,” Padilla said. “We’re talking about fundamental health and safety of so many essential workers across the country.”

More than 430 workers across the country died from environmental heat exposure on the job between 2011 and 2021, while about 34,000 were injured, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And in California, state regulators have confirmed 54 heat fatalities since 2005.

But occupational health experts say these figures are likely significant undercounts, as cases are commonly misdiagnosed and underreported.

In a recent report, the nonprofit Public Citizen estimated that heat is responsible for as many as 2,000 worker deaths and 170,000 injuries in the U.S. each year.

Several states already require certain employers to take steps to prevent heat stress among their workers, but those regulations vary. While Oregon’s protections cover both indoor and outdoor workers, California rules only apply to outdoor settings.

Cal/OSHA, the state equivalent of the federal agency, is currently working on expanding California’s heat standards to cover indoor worksites. But the agency, which was legally bound to issue the new rules by 2019, blew by that deadline and held its first public hearing on the proposed regulation in May. The delay was exacerbated during the pandemic, as the agency struggled to respond to COVID worksite hazards.

During a press event this month, a group of Southern California workers whose jobs put them at risk of heat stress called on employers and the state to do more to keep them safe.

Juan Moran, a 40-year-old line cook, said his managers often frown on him stepping away from the sweltering grill area to get a drink of water. He said he started to notice what he thought was lower back pain, but later realized the pain was in his kidneys, which can suffer permanent damage from frequent dehydration.

“It’s affecting me and it’s due to a lack of hydration,” said Moran, in Spanish, who works at a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles. “Now that I know that’s what’s happening, I always try to hydrate, to bring water bottles for before and after work.”

All employers nationwide are already required to take steps to protect workers from any known hazards on the job. But issuing heat-specific regulations would clearly outline employers’ responsibilities, said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, which advocates for safer workplaces.

“Climate change is impacting the entire country and we need protections at the federal level … so there is uniformity in the protections from heat,” she said.

In a statement, Doug Parker, the assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, said his agency is working diligently to get a final rule in place. In the meantime, he added, it has stepped up enforcement, conducting more than 2,500 heat-related inspections since April 2021.

“Heat illness prevention is one of [OSHA’s] top priorities,” Parker said. “As we work towards proposing a rule on heat illness prevention, we’re also enhancing our enforcement compliance efforts to make sure employers and workers understand the dangers of heat illness and how to prevent it.”

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