Spotlight Exclusives

Extreme Heat Creates ‘Boiling Point’ for Low-Income Workers

Juley Fulcher Juley Fulcher, posted on

While temperatures have rapidly risen in recent years, protections for workers impacted by extreme heat have not kept pace with changing conditions. “Boiling Point,” a new report from Public Citizen, calls for the Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA) to create a long-overdue standard to protect workers from extreme heat. The report details how low-income workers and Black and Brown workers are disproportionately impacted by extreme heat, which results in at least 170,000 work-related injuries each year and as many as 2,000 fatalities. Spotlight spoke recently with the study’s author, Juley Fulcher, a worker health and safety advocate at Public Citizen and coordinator of the National Heat Stress Campaign. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity

What’s the major takeaway from your report?

The main point of the report is that we’ve never done a great job of trying to measure just how much this happens, how often it happens. We do know from workers themselves that this has been a problem for a long time. With the increasing heat, though, it has really just grown and grown. Most problematic are major heat waves—they’re hotter, they’re longer and the season for having heat waves is longer. It’s creating a very dangerous situation for workers.

And it’s everywhere—this is not just centered in Texas, California, and a few other places.

I think the big Pacific Northwest heat wave of June of 2021 really brought it home that intense heat waves can happen anywhere. But it’s also important to know that the way that our bodies handle heat stress has to do with what we’re used to. We’re all acclimated to a certain temperature level, which means that a heat wave that gets up into the 90s in Maine is going be a remarkably intense event for them and very dangerous for workers. Whereas something in the mid-90s will still have impact, it’s certainly not unusual for Florida or Texas or California.

And not surprisingly, this is impacting predominately low-wage workers and workers of color.

Yes. The jobs that are most at risk of heat stress, and the kinds of illnesses and injuries that follow, tend to be jobs that have a lot of heat involved, both indoors and outdoors—the jobs that nobody wants and that we can pay people minimum wage, and sometimes less, to do. What we end up with is that the bottom 20% of wage earners has five times more heat illnesses and injuries than the top 20% of wage earners, and that the jobs that have the most recorded heat injuries or heat fatalities are also jobs with a disproportionate number of Black and Brown workers.

OSHA (The Occupational Health and Safety Administration) has been slow to address this, correct?

NIOSH—the National Institute of Health and Safety—recommended a standard 50 years ago, so it has definitely been a long time coming. We first petitioned them for a standard in 2011 and it was rejected. They have finally initiated the process to create a heat standard, which we are very happy about, but that process on average takes 7.9 years, and that’s unacceptable. You’ve got workers who are getting injured, ill, and dying. From our report, we were able to estimate that 50,000 people could be saved from heat injury and illness per year if OSHA put a standard in place. And we need it now. So, that’s why we’re asking them to put in place an emergency temporary standard that would protect these workers and create this reduction in injuries and illnesses while they’re putting together the final standard.

Has there been any response to that request?

We first petitioned for an emergency temporary standard last summer. We actually never got an official response to it. Shortly thereafter they granted our petition for a permanent standard and, so far, have just kind of ignored the whole emergency standard request.

And what would a permanent standard actually do in terms of offering new protections?

There are quite a number of things that we’ve been asking for and that CDC and NIOSH has said is what needs to be there. They include things like availability of a certain amount of cool water for workers, having adequate breaks and rest time and having those breaks in a cool place. There is also a need for a lot of education and training and making sure that management and workers all clearly understand the danger and the warning signs and symptoms, as well as how to respond if they themselves are feeling ill or someone around them seems to be having problems. We are big proponents of the buddy system so that no one is working alone under those conditions. There’s also the issue of acclimatization—you’ve got a new worker who’s never done this work, that person needs to build up to being able to spend eight or 10 hours out in the hot sun. We actually see a big proportion of workers who die from heat stress die in the first week of work.

On the question of whether there should be an exact temperature cutoff, there are lots of different ideas out there about how it should work. We are proponents of having specific temperatures and heat indexes where different kinds of protections kick in, simply because it’s easiest. We want to be able to make sure that employers of every size are able to look at something, see what they’re supposed to do, and do it. There are different kinds of tables and mathematical formulas that are used to factor in the heat, the humidity, the wind speed, radiant heat, what you’re wearing at the time, and workload and calculate the temperature level at which you have to start having increased break time. Those formulas are fine for a large employer with a lot of technological knowledge and equipment, but it’s just not realistic to expect all employers to be able to make those kinds of calculations for their workers.

Are there state policies you would point to that have made an impact?

There’s only a handful of states who have put a policy in place. The most recent to go into effect was Oregon on June 15th and that one, while not perfect, so far is probably the best in terms of it being fairly comprehensive and covering the things that need to be there to protect workers. California has had their standard for quite some time and it also has some good elements, although it only addresses outdoor workers.

Is there anything Congress is considering?

There is a bill still out there, the Asuncíon Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, that essentially would get OSHA to create a rule. And since the OSHA process has begun, that legislation has lost some of its relevance.

How much do immigration politics play into this issue?

It definitely can. Many of these jobs across the board are held by immigrants, most of them documented but certainly some are undocumented. Farm workers have the highest rates of heat illness and fatality, and they also are 70% immigrants, 40% are undocumented immigrants. Immigration policy doesn’t have to change to still have more protections for extreme heat. But we do want to make sure that even if you are undocumented, you can still come forward and make a complaint to OSHA that you have an unsafe workplace and that will not automatically start deportation proceedings.

Similarly, we have a lot of H-2A visa holders who are farm workers—these are specialized visas that someone gets to work for a specific employer in the U.S. These workers can be in the position that if they complain to their employer, they immediately get returned to their country. So, it’s definitely a complicating factor.


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