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Safety group: White House measures to protect workers are not enough

by Jessica E. Martinez and Marcy Goldstein-Gelb

Leaders of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) said today that modest steps announced by the White House yesterday to protect workers from extreme heat are insufficient.

“Tragically, workers are getting sick and dying every day from the extreme heat driven by climate change,” said Jessica E. Martinez, co-executive director of National COSH, in a blog post on the organization’s website. “This is no time for modest steps. The President, Congress, federal OSHA and state and local officials must take bold action now, to reduce risk and save lives.”

“We are not helpless in the face of the triple-digit temperatures that are breaking thermometers all over the globe,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, also a co-executive director of National COSH. Heat stroke and heat illness, like other occupational hazards, are preventable.

Practical, evidence-based measures including adequate rest breaks, plentiful fresh water, access to shade, reduced work schedules, moving work to cooler parts of the day, and a buddy system so no worker is left alone can and must be implemented now in every indoor and outdoor setting where extreme heat is present.

In addition to the stepped up enforcement and inspections for heat safety violations ordered by President Biden which are authorized by the ‘general duty’ clause of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Act, the president, Congress and state officials must all take action to create specific standards on heat stress which will offer more and better protection for workers.

“There is no reason for employers to await the result of a regulatory process,” said Martinez. “There is definitely a reason not to wait: Absent preventive measures, more workers will become sick and die from exposure to extreme heat.”

The National COSH leaders urged several specific steps, including:

  • President Biden should order federal OSHA immediately to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to protect workers from heat stress.
  • Congress should put into law a requirement that federal OSHA issue an interim standard on heat stress. This can complement and strengthen any emergency standard issued by the agency.
  • Federal OSHA has already begun the lengthy process of creating a permanent safety standard on heat stress, and this must be completed as rapidly as possible.
  • Currently only five out of 50 states have workplace safety rules to protect against exposure to extreme heat; Oregon is the only state which protects both indoor and outdoor workers.
  • Officials in 45 other states should take immediate steps to issue state-level standards, which can frequently be completed more quickly than federal rulemaking. Under the OSH Act, state standards must be least as strong – and can be stronger – than federal standards.

“Millions of workers who build our  homes, bring food to our tables, and provide other essential goods and services…  [are] at risk right now,” said Martinez. “Our government, at all levels, must respond – right now.”

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