Biden administration to write rules on heat hazards in the workplace

WASHINGTON – Biden administration works to tackle the effects of heat on health, including the first-ever labor standard to protect workers from extreme heat, as part of growing recognition of the dangers posed by the warming of temperatures caused by the climate. cash.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the Ministry of Labor, will draft its first rule governing heat exposure designed to protect those working outdoors in agricultural, construction and delivery workers as well as workers in warehouses, factories and kitchens.

It comes after a summer that saw record-breaking heat waves in the western United States and British Columbia, which scientists say have been made more extreme by climate change. According to National Meteorological Service, extreme heat is the leading cause of weather-related mortality in the country.

“Over the past few weeks, I have traveled across the country to see first-hand the devastating human and economic toll of extreme weather conditions exacerbated by climate change,” President Biden said in a statement. “Rising temperatures pose an imminent threat to millions of American workers exposed to the elements, to children in schools without air conditioning, to the elderly in nursing homes without cooling resources, and especially to underprivileged communities. My administration will not let Americans face this threat alone. “

The administration said it would form an interagency heat illness prevention working group to better understand the challenges and how best to protect workers from heat injury.

In addition to drafting the new rule, the Labor Ministry will prioritize heat-related interventions and work inspections on days when the heat index exceeds 80 degrees, the administration said. The ministry is also already working to complete a program by next summer that will target industries most at risk for heat injuries and focus more resources on inspections.

Experts said the rules and policies designed to protect workers from extreme heat were long overdue – although, according to their drafting details, they could be onerous for employers.

“Heat-related illnesses have been grossly underreported and under-treated for a long time – and now they’re getting even hotter,” said David Hondula, professor at Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. .

Dr Hondula noted that some states and professional organizations, such as the United States Football Federation, already have limits on when and how long workers can perform their duties in the heat.

Some of these guidelines, which could inform a federal rule, include mandatory breaks for people who work at high temperatures during certain times and, in some cases, requirements that stop working when the heat index exceeds a certain level. . They also include requirements that employers provide shade, water and air conditioning when possible, and that employers provide access to medical care for workers who are regularly exposed to heat.

But if such guidelines were to become federal regulations, it could increase the costs or reduce the productivity of certain industries – particularly any requirement that construction or other exterior work cease completely under certain heat conditions, Dr. Hondula.

“It’s fair to say it could be costly,” he said, although he noted that the economy is already bearing the burden of illness and death associated with heat exposure. “We may already be absorbing some of the productivity costs,” he said.

Marc Freedman, vice president of workplace policy for the US Chamber of Commerce, said his organization looks forward to participating in OSHA’s rulemaking process. But he noted that there were “unique difficulties” when it came to creating a thermal safety standard.

“Heat is a very difficult hazard to regulate because there is no common risk threshold and employees respond to exposure differently,” Freedman said.

In addition to the new workplace heat standards, the health ministry has already issued guidelines to enable the low-income energy assistance program, which has historically been used to help people who cannot afford their costs. heating bills in extreme cold weather, to cover home air costs – conditioning and cooling centers during hot weather.

And the Environmental Protection Agency is using funds from an economic stimulus bill passed this year to provide technical assistance to establish neighborhood cooling centers in public schools.

OSHA’s new rule is one of the government’s first direct responses to an emerging area of ​​research showing that extreme heat harms and kills more workers and vulnerable populations.

A study published this summer found that heat contributes to far more workplace injuries than official records show, and these injuries are concentrated among the poorest workers. Hotter days not only mean more cases of heatstroke or exhaustion, but also injuries from falls, collisions with vehicles or improper handling of machines, as the heat makes it difficult to concentrate. , the researchers discovered.

And after Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans this month, more people in the city died from heat exposure after the storm than were killed by flood waters.

A study published in May found that the growing risk of overlapping heat waves and power outages poses a serious threat to major US cities. Power outages have increased by more than 60% since 2015, as climate change has intensified heat waves, research finds in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Using computer models to study three major US cities, the authors estimated that a combined blackout and heat wave would expose at least two-thirds of residents to heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

And other research suggests that rising temperatures are even widening the racial achievement gap in American schools, further evidence that the burden of climate change is disproportionately on people of color. In a published article in the journal Nature Human Behavior, researchers found that students performed worse on standardized tests for each additional day of 80 degrees Fahrenheit or more, even after controlling for other factors. These effects were maintained in 58 countries, suggesting a link between heat exposure and reduced learning.

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