As Extreme Heat Challenges Our Outdoor Workers, White House Announcement Will Save Lives

September 23, 2021
USDA/Bob Nichols
Juan Declet-Barreto
Senior Social Scientist for Climate Vulnerability

Asunción Valdivia did not need to die from exposure to extreme heat at work in 2004. Neither did Sebastián Francisco Pérez, Cruz Urías Beltrán, or countless other outdoor workers who tragically perished after being exposed to extreme heat. 

In addition to our essential outdoor workers, millions of elderly and young people, those who are healthy as well as those with pre-existing conditions, all are at risk from extreme heat as climate change continues unabated. The hundreds of heat-attributable deaths across many parts of the U.S. this summer (mostly in Oregon and Washington) were a tragic reminder of the toll that extreme heat and climate change are taking on our livesand some climate scientists have expressed something unfathomable: that the 2021 summer may very well have been the coolest summer of the rest of our lives!

This week, President Biden announced measures across many federal agencies to protect workers and communities from extreme heat.  In the absence of mandated federal protections, worker rights groups such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have developed science-based heat protection standards for workers who are employed by major produce growers in Florida. But protecting workers under a changing climate demands more than a patchwork of voluntary programs, so the need for a national standard is clear. Still, there’s a long regulatory road ahead of us before heat standards are a reality in the U.S. workplace. See this blog post by UCS’ Executive Director, Dr. Kathy Rest, for more details on how the administration will protect workers from heat.

Protections for heat-vulnerable communities are moving ahead as well

The administration is also taking action to address the inequitable impacts of extreme heat on communities by strengthening existing federal programs. For example, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) has recently been expanded to allow states and territories to use LIHEAP funds for purchasing air conditioning units, establishing cooling centers, and increasing power bill benefits, among others. Funds from the American Rescue Plan will be used by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to foster the use of public schools as cooling centers. 

In cities, vulnerability to extreme heat is a racial and environmental justice issue, as people living with low incomes and people of color are disproportionately burdened with heat-related death and illness in large part due to hotter temperatures and lack of vegetation, green spaces, and social and economic resources to face the heat. And we know that these conditions are largely the result of racial discrimination, residential redlining, and public disinvestment in those communities. Recognizing that addressing extreme heat requires a social vulnerability lens, federal action is also leveraging a new EPA analysis of disproportionate heat and climate change impacts and a Forest Service guide to use increased tree cover to reduce urban heat, both of which—the White House announced—will inform solutions that target vulnerable communities.

Existing heat health science-based resources are being strengthened as well, such as the CDC’s Heat and Health Tracker, which will continue to use climate science to provide county-level forecasts of dangerous heat conditions.

Science-based heat standards can protect workers and communities

Physiologically, the human body’s ability to tolerate extreme heat for a sustained period of time is limited. Those limits, anthropologists say, evolved over a long time and thus cannot be readily changed (at least not in the lifetime of any individual). What can be changed is the length and severity of exposure of workers to extreme heat via hourly breaks, access to water and shade, and awareness and training to recognize heat illness symptoms – precisely the things that employers can control.

But a powerful industry group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is punting on employers’ responsibilities to protect their workers by falsely claiming that “defining a heat hazard can be subjective” and that workplace protections such as those proposed by OSHA will make employers responsible for things that employers cannot control. The Chamber has stooped low, using the classic victim-blaming claim that workers’ “lifestyles” are responsible for heat illness or death among workers.

Study after study has confirmed that prolonged exposure to high temperatures, regardless of anyone’s “lifestyle,” can lead to a range of symptoms—from minor discomfort to severe illness and even death—and that the frequency and intensity of dangerously hot days is increasing due to climate change.  So-called “lifestyle” factors are not necessarily decisions that individuals make, but are social and demographic determinants of exposure to extreme heat and consequent health impacts. Those factors include paid sick days, safe working conditions, and a living wage that can help afford air conditioners—precisely the sort of benefits that employers can and do provide in many occupations.

Besides, “lifestyle” as a factor in heat-related risks is a very dangerous choice of words. It evokes the racist, victim-blaming discourse prevalent among polluting industries that attempt to distract from their own responsibility in reducing toxic emissions by claiming that smoking and grilling meats are to blame for excess cancers among African Americans, and not the toxic pollution those communities are exposed to chronically.

Congressional action on heat is also advancing to protect workers and communities

In addition to the executive action announced this week, there are a few policy vehicles moving in Congress that aim to create heat and health protections for workers. Within the transportation section of the infrastructure bill, extreme heat is addressed through the establishment of the Healthy Streets program, which would provide grants to help communities implement heat reduction measures such as cool pavements and expanded tree cover. In the Senate, the Preventing Health Emergencies And Temperature-related (HEAT) Illness and Deaths Act would provide $100 million for community projects to reduce heat exposure. A companion bill in the House of Representatives was recently introduced as well. In addition, the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act introduced in the Senate seeks to protect workers from heat now and in a warmer future.

The regulatory road ahead to create and implement heat protection standards for workers and communities will be long. On average, it takes almost 8 years for the average OSHA rule to be developed and finalized. And we can expect anti-scientific and fact-free claims from powerful industry groups and climate deniers trying to derail the process. But our work is cut out for us: we must demand science-based protections from extreme heat to our essential workers and also in our residential communities, where the most heat-vulnerable live.