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As climate change warms workplaces, Biden directs safety agency to draft heat rules for workers

New standards would apply to indoor and outdoor workers

A farmworker picks cabbage outside Calexico, Calif., in 2018. (Gregory Bull/AP)

President Biden is directing labor officials in his administration to draft a set of rules that businesses would have to follow during extreme heat — a regulation advocates have increasingly clamored for as a warming climate raises new risks for workers.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is in charge of workplace safety, was tasked by the White House with developing the new safety standard, which would be aimed at workers outside who face the most severe effects of extreme heat, such as agricultural, construction and delivery workers, as well as those indoors in environments without air conditioning, such as many warehouse workers.

“Over the past few weeks, I have traveled across the country to see firsthand the devastating human and economic toll of extreme weather exacerbated by climate change,” Biden said in a statement. “Rising temperatures pose an imminent threat to millions of American workers exposed to the elements, to kids in schools without air conditioning, to seniors in nursing homes without cooling resources, and particularly to disadvantaged communities.”

The call comes after a summer of record heat, including a heat wave in the Pacific Northwest in which at least two workers collapsed and died, and other climate-related disasters, such as storms in Louisiana and New York and extreme fires in California.

Worker advocates have said that for years, extreme heat has posed a major threat for those who toil outside and those who work indoors in facilities such as warehouse. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 43 workers died of heat-related illnesses in 2019, the last year data is available.

Biden administration, workers grapple with health threats posed by climate change and heat

The new OSHA standard is likely to include hard rules about breaks, shade access and water availability that businesses would have to follow when temperatures hit a certain threshold, under the threat of financial penalties.

Some states, such as California, have instituted their own rules for the heat, but critics contend that these rules are often patchwork and not always well enforced. And there have been growing complaints about conditions warehouse workers face, in what is one of the country’s fastest-growing sectors.

In response to the heat wave this summer, Oregon announced emergency rules mandating that employers provide cool water, adequate shade and rest breaks every two hours when the temperature in work areas, indoors or outdoors, exceeds 90 degrees.

And pressure has been increasing on OSHA to act, too. Legislation introduced by Democrats in Congress in March would have required OSHA to establish federal rules to protect workers in extreme heat conditions across the country. The Biden administration said previously that the creation of such a rule was a top priority.

Labor advocates said that the move was a welcome one from the administration.

“It’s an important step forward,” said David Michaels, an epidemiologist at the George Washington University School of Public Health who headed OSHA under President Barack Obama. “It demonstrates that the White House views worker safety as an integral component of the climate-change mitigation effort. While we’re trying to reduce the use of fossil fuels and greenhouse-gas emissions, we have to protect the safety of the public. And this is an important component of that.”

The rulemaking process will require an extensive public comment period and kick off a legal process that requires the agency to establish that there is significant risk, a standard advocates said would not be difficult to meet.

Still, the process could take years before a final standard is in effect. Michaels said the average time for a new standard was around seven years but could be accelerated a bit if the White House continued to prioritize it.

In a statement, Marc Freedman, vice president of employment policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that heat could be a challenging hazard to regulate for OSHA.

“The U.S. Chamber looks forward to participating in OSHA’s rulemaking and urges the agency to recognize the unique difficulties with this issue,” he said.

Elizabeth Strater, a United Farm Workers director, said she had “mixed responses” to the announcement, citing how long it could take to be implemented. The union has called for an emergency standard, which would bypass the years of bureaucratic process needed for a new rule.

“Any progress is progress. It’s long overdue to have a federal heat standard,” she said. “We have been calling for rulemaking for many administrations already. … We have also been calling for emergency action, with increasing urgency. Workers are out there working and dying in the heat, right now.”

Others said that having the White House lend its attention to the issue would send a signal to companies that would be felt more immediately. OSHA said it also plans to implement better enforcement of heat issues under its current rules, with inspectors prioritizing heat-related complaints and initiating more inspections on high-heat days.

“Throughout the nation, millions of workers face serious hazards from high temperatures both outdoors and indoors,” Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said in a statement. “Amid changing climate, the growing frequency and intensity of extreme heat events is increasing the dangers workers face, especially for workers of color who disproportionately work in essential jobs in tough conditions.”