Amid a punishing global heatwave, the US agency that sets workplace safety standards is likely many years away from enacting a federal rule that would protect workers from dangerously high temperatures, experts and a former agency official said.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the Department of Labor began drafting such an ordinance in October, but has been stalled by a lack of resources, strong industry opposition and bureaucratic processes that can stretch for decades, said Jordan Barab, a former OSHA official .
“All of this creates tremendous barriers to getting things done in a reasonable timeframe,” said Barab, the Obama administration’s deputy assistant secretary of labor.
The agency is in the early stages of the rulemaking process, which can take anywhere from 15 months to 19 years beginning to end and is on average more than seven years, according to a report from the US Government Accountability Office.
The report, released in 2012, identified procedural requirements, shifting priorities and a rigorous standard of judicial review as the top obstacles.
“Regulations take time, and it’s critical that we get it right,” OSHA Assistant Secretary of Labor Doug Parker said in a statement.
But advocates say outdoor workers — many of whom are people of color — can’t wait as climate change makes extreme temperatures more likely.
“It is evident that the climate is heating up and workers are at increased risk,” Barab said. “This is getting worse.”
When temperatures topped 90 degrees last month in Pasadena, California, a 24-year-old UPS driver collapsed and died in his truck shortly after delivering a package, his family said.
The county coroner has yet to say what caused Esteban Chavez Jr.’s death, but his father blamed the heat and demands of the job.
“These trucks are a hot box,” Chavez Sr. said KTLA. “You have all these guys running around delivering packages and trying to meet their quotas and get their jobs done.”
Recently, another UPS worker collapsed in the Arizona heat — a moment captured on a homeowner’s doorbell video camera — but survived. The unidentified worker is seen slumped on the ground seconds after delivering a package.
UPS did not immediately comment on Friday. Earlier this week, in response to the Arizona driver’s collapse, the company said its drivers were “trained for working outdoors and for the effects of hot weather.” It also said air conditioning in vans was “ineffective” because they stop frequently.
Many other incidents go unreported, as do heat-related workplace injuries and fatalities, said Juley Fulcher, who works with Public Citizen, a nonprofit group that advocates for consumers and workers.
From 2011 to 2019, searing temperatures resulted in an average of 38 worker deaths per year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2019 alone, 43 workers died from exposure to heat, and more than 2,400 others suffered serious injuries and illnesses, OSHA said.
However, Fulcher said the numbers are likely significantly higher due to inconsistencies in reporting. A new public citizen report found that heat exposure is likely responsible for 170,000 work-related injuries and approximately 600 to 2,000 deaths each year.
According to the report, farm workers, the vast majority of whom are migrants, are most vulnerable to heat-related injuries and illnesses, while construction workers are more likely to die.
Construction workers, who make up 6% of the total US workforce, were responsible for 36% of all heat-related workplace deaths from 1992 to 2016, according to a 2019 report from the Center for Construction Research and Training, an organization that works with OSHA to address construction hazards.
And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 90% of landscape and property maintenance workers spent more than two-thirds of their work time outdoors in 2020, compared to 4% of all civilian workers.
“A lot more workers are dying in the heat and it’s not being recorded that way,” Fulcher said.
“The sweat doesn’t stop”
In Virginia, where temperatures are expected to approach 100 degrees this weekend, UPS driver Nick Jones has a sweat towel, Gatorade and some watermelon in his van to cool off.
Jones, 38, says he can see visible heat waves through his windshield when stopped at red lights.
“It’s unbearable,” he said, adding that his truck wasn’t air-conditioned. “These days I use the towel at every stop because the heat is just so intense. The sweat doesn’t stop.”
Both the heat and the demands of the job have intensified over the past 17 years that Jones has driven for UPS, he said.
Packages increasingly include sofas and dressers, which Jones sometimes has to carry up several flights of stairs in apartment complexes. “There’s no limit to what a person can order over the internet,” he said.
The back of the truck is about 30 to 40 degrees hotter than the air outside, he said. To escape the sun for a moment, he said he walks to nearby grocery stores for 10 minutes before continuing on his route.
“It’s a metal box. It’s all brown and attracts heat all day,” he said.
Workers and advocates are urging OSHA to speed up its rulemaking process. There are a few avenues the agency can take to speed up the process. But OSHA, which is understaffed and understaffed, likely won’t, Barab said, out of legal caution and “bureaucratic inertia.”
Last year, Public Citizen petitioned OSHA to issue a temporary emergency standard that the group said would have the same force as a permanent standard for at least six months.
The petition is still pending. But that path is fraught with legal ramifications and tends to be overturned by the courts, Barab said.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are pushing for a federal bill that would require OSHA to create measures like paid breaks in cool rooms, access to water and limits on the time workers are exposed to heat.
The legislation is named after Asunción Valdivia, a California farm worker who died in 2004 after picking grapes for 10 hours in 105-degree temperatures, said US Senator Alex Padilla, D-Calif.
“It’s not a distant threat. We live it now and we live it more every day,” he said at a news conference this week. “We can’t afford to wait.”
“We can’t afford to wait.”
U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.)
In a statement, OSHA said it is reviewing Public Citizen’s report and has received thousands of comments that “will guide our work in developing an all-encompassing final rule based on the latest available science and data.”
“We will continue to improve our efforts and explore ways to help employers and workers reduce the risk of heat exposure,” said Parker, the agency’s deputy secretary.
Workers are currently covered by the protections of OSHA’s “General Mandate Clause,” which require Employers to keep workplaces “free of recognized hazards” including heat.
But a specific federal standard would significantly increase employer compliance, said Chris Cain, executive director of the Center for Construction Research and Training.
“It takes this problem to a much higher level,” she said. “And they, in turn, introduce controls to a much greater extent than they do if they are only threatened with a violation of the general mandatory clause or through investigation efforts.”
“If it’s actually completed,” Cain said, “we’re really going to see a change.”
At least 50,000 heat-related injuries and illnesses across the country could likely be prevented if OSHA instituted a heat standard, Public Citizen said, citing the success of a statewide heat safety standard in California.
If OSHA doesn’t finalize a federal heat rule by 2024, proponents fear it will be dropped entirely if the GOP wins the presidency. Under the Trump administration, the number of OSHA inspectors dwindled as hiring stalled.
“If we put a Republican in office, chances are it will be stopped,” Fulcher said.
Barab warned that the problem is much worse than the statistics suggest. Chronic exposure to heat can severely affect the kidneys and brain, he said, and many cases are not work-related, particularly when a worker does not collapse at work.
“The effects of heat are much, much greater and more pervasive than just people dying of heat stroke at work,” he said. “We are dealing with a much bigger problem than we realize.”
https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/osha-years-away-issuing-federal-heat-standard-protect-workers-advocate-rcna39208 OSHA is years away from issuing a federal heat standard that would protect workers. Proponents say it’s bad now.