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The government has issued warnings to avoid prolonged exposure to heat. A heat wave that spanned from California to Florida caused dozens to die, flooded some hospitals and led to a pandemic in others. The federal agency that is responsible for protecting your safety on the job cannot do much if you are ordered to work in the scorching summer sun by your boss.
OSHA is still drafting a standard on heat in workplaces, despite the fact that climate change will make extreme weather more frequent. The Biden administration announced this effort nearly two years ago. It is still years away from becoming a reality, if at all.
The US Chamber of Commerce and other business interests are opposing the proposed rule. They say that the issue of what heat levels are safe for workers cannot be easily answered by rules and standards, and that the physical condition and exertion of the workers can affect the heat risk.
Labor groups believe that formal standards for excessive heat have been long overdue.
A letter from the AFL-CIO in 2022 stated that 'the need for enforceable standard to ensure employers implement the proper controls to safeguard workers in high-heat situations is greater than ever' As the temperature of the earth rises, occupational heat exposures are more likely to occur.
Heat-related deaths at work
It is evident that heat-related deaths on the job are a growing problem.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 436 workplace deaths from 2011 to 2021 that occurred due to heat exposure. That's about 40 deaths a year. The majority of these deaths occurred during summer, which is well over one death per week for workers who are exposed to heat in the hottest months.
Experts say that these numbers are a gross underestimation of the actual number of deaths caused by heat exposure at work.
Heat illness can interfere with cognitive abilities. Heat illness can cause people to make more errors. It won't be considered a heat-related disease if you are run over or crashed by a car, but the heat was to blame,' said Jordan Barab who was deputy assistant secretary at OSHA between 2009 and 2017. You have listed workers who died from natural causes such as heart attacks or went home to suffer from the heat and got sick. It might not be considered work-related.
Eugene Gates, Jr., an 66-year-old letter carrier at the Lakewood Post Office, Dallas, collapsed and died in his front yard while on his route on June 20, 2008. On that particular day, the National Weather Service recorded an airport temperature of 97°F. The heat index, a more accurate measure of how hot you feel, was 115 degrees that day according to data from Wunderground.
Carla Gates, his widow, says that there is no official autopsy and his death was not officially classified as heat related. She has said that she asked the US Postal Service to provide answers about her husband's death and working conditions on this day.
It was definitely the heat. She told CNN that her husband had no other health issues. She said that her husband never complained about the heat on his daily route.
She said, "He would say, "Baby, I'm used it, I know how to do,"'
Kimetra Lewis is the president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, the branch that represented Gates. She said she knows of many other letter carriers, who were overcome by heat at work during the recent heatwave. She said that heat is a serious issue.
While the postal service did not say whether Gates' or other deaths in the past were heat-related, they acknowledged the risks heat poses.
Our carriers deliver mail all year round in a variety of temperatures and climate conditions. This includes the summer months, when temperatures are higher across the country. In response to inquiries about his death, the USPS stated that "the safety of our employees was a top priority".
Heat can be deadly on the job
W. Larry Kenney is a professor of physiology at Penn State. He said that heat stroke can be fatal when the core body temperature rises above 104 degrees. The increase in body temperature can lead to brain cells having difficulty sending signals to the body, resulting in organ failure.
Kenney said, "Heat stroke can be a life-threatening condition that leads to cognitive dysfunction." The majority of people who succumb to it die due to a combination high core body temperatures and heart failure. Exercise in these conditions can increase the risk.
Most heat-related deaths occur in outdoor jobs such as construction, farming and delivery services. Indoor work places without air conditioning can be equally dangerous, as is the case in many warehouses.
The lack of breeze, even if you work indoors and avoid direct sunlight exposure, can cause sweat to evaporate less. Sweating is the primary method by which humans deal with heat. When sweat evaporates, it cools down the body. Kenney explained that, if the sweat evaporation is limited by high humidity, or a lack of breeze, it will only cause dehydration.
Even a non-fatal heatstroke can lead to permanent organ damage and medical problems.
Climate change is making extreme heat a bigger problem. In the United States, alone, more than 2,300 heat record have been set during recent heat waves. The world experienced its hottest ever day earlier this month.
Climate study groups predict that the situation will worsen in the next few years. According to a study conducted by the First Street Foundation last year, the number of US citizens who will experience at least one day in which the heat index is over 125 degrees (which is considered dangerous) will increase from 8 million people this year to 100 million people by 2053.
It has been difficult to get a set of clear rules that protect workers against high heat, despite the risks.
OSHA heat safety regulations
OSHA has the power to fine employers who allow heat levels that are unsafe for their workers. This is done under a "general duty" rule which requires safe workplaces.
Former OSHA official Barab explained that in order to achieve this, OSHA must demonstrate that there exists a serious risk that can lead to death or serious injury, that it is widely acknowledged, and that there are feasible ways to reduce the hazard.
The problem with a general duty is that it becomes complicated. Was there a pre-existing medical condition of the worker? Is 100°C considered dangerous? What are the feasible ways to reduce heat? OSHA has overturned numerous heat citations,' said he. "That's why an international heat standard would be more useful."
OSHA stated that protecting workers from heat was a top priority.
Doug Parker, OSHA's Assistant Secretary, said: "We recognize that extreme heat has a long-term impact and the need to address it immediately." A heat regulation will give OSHA more tools to enforce workplace requirements where employers put workers at risk.
The Chamber of Commerce says it is committed to protecting workers. It says it will be hard to get OSHA to come up with an effective, clear standard that employers can follow, given all the factors involved.
Marc Freedman is the Chamber's vice-president of workplace policy. He said, "The heat issue will not go away as a safety hazard." The chances of OSHA implementing a heat exposure regulation are very high. It's reasonable to expect that a rule proposal will be made in the next year.
It's a long way from a proposal to a final rule. Barab says that while the Biden Administration is known to favor an OSHA heat-standard, a Republican president who supports business could kill its chances of becoming law for many years to come.
He said that implementing an OSHA regulation could take up to 20 years.