And it’s only going to get worse. In a 2020 paper, University of Washington researchers calculated that the average number of “days spent working in unsafe conditions” due to excessive heat will likely double by mid-century, and triple by the end of it. Yet Washington is one of just four states with specific rules to protect workers from dangerous heat, along with California, Oregon, and Minnesota. Legislatures in Nevada, Maryland, and Colorado have passed laws requiring state agencies to develop heat standards for workers, but they haven’t come into effect yet. And there are no federal standards on working in the heat.
Under federal labor law, employers are required to “assure safe and healthful working conditions” on the job. The agency that exists within the Department of Labor to enforce that standard, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, occasionally rolls out rules designed to protect workers from specific threats that might otherwise fall through the cracks. Back in 1983, for example, OSHA introduced rules requiring employers to train and inform workers about how to avoid exposure to toxic chemicals on the job. Last June, OSHA released emergency rules designed to protect health care workers from Covid-19—a move the Trump Administration’s Labor Department had refused to make, despite strong pressure from worker advocates.
Last September, in the wake of the hottest US summer on record, OSHA initiated a rule-making process to develop a workplace heat standard that could ultimately bring the rest of the United States in line with Washington and its West Coast peers in requiring paid, shaded breaks and access to cool drinking water when temperatures hit hazardous levels. In its announcement, OSHA stressed that humidity should be accounted for in setting the threshold. But the federal process grinds at a slow pace. A 2012 US Government Accountability Office study found that the time between initiation and fruition for new safety and health standards averages seven years—and can take as long as 19 years.
Given the present and growing menace of heat stress for workers, that’s too little, too late, say many advocates. In a report released in June, the advocacy group Public Citizen urged the Biden OSHA to release emergency rules to protect workers “while it continues the slow process of proposing and finalizing a permanent standard.”
But the conservative turn of federal courts in recent years, including most spectacularly the US Supreme Court, makes such a move vulnerable to legal challenge. “I think the current judiciary would not permit OSHA to issue an emergency standard for heat,” David Michaels, OSHA administrator under former president Barack Obama and current George Washington University professor, told Mother Jones. “A heat standard is clearly a high priority for OSHA, but the standard-setting process is broken, so unless Congress intervenes and passes legislation that lets OSHA move faster, it will take several years for the agency to issue a standard.”
In 2021 a group of US senators including Bernie Sanders and Democrats Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren, and Corey Booker cosponsored a bill that would require OSHA to enact a “final standard on prevention of occupational exposure to excessive heat” within three and a half years of its being signed into law. They called the bill the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, named after a California farmworker who died of heat stroke in 2004 “after picking grapes for 10 straight hours in 105 degree temperatures.” Instead of calling an ambulance, the bill’s text adds, “his employer told his son to drive Mr. Valdivia home. On his way home, he started foaming at the mouth and died.”