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Heat-Related Injuries Warrant More Worker Protections

With climate conditions expected to intensify in the upcoming years, there is a desperate need for regulations to protect our nation’s outdoor workforce.

By George Salinas, Esq., Contributor

For the nation’s outdoor workers, heat stress is a danger that can prove deadly. On one North Carolina farm, a 56-year-old employee set to work at 6 a.m. harvesting tobacco leaves for his third day on the job. Just before 3 p.m., temperatures climbed to a blistering high of 112°F.

The man’s coworkers noted he seemed disoriented and confused, but he fought back as they carried him to a shady area and tried to force him to drink water. At 4:25 p.m., emergency room staff recorded the man’s core body temperature as 108°F. Despite receiving emergency medical treatment, he died of heat stroke shortly after.

Unfortunately, this man’s story is not unique. Record-breaking temperatures have caused outdoor workers across the country to suffer heat-related symptoms, including nausea, excruciating stomach cramps, and throbbing headaches. Despite perilous conditions, in most states, employees cannot choose when to drink water, seek shade, and rest.

With experts telling us that climate conditions will intensify in the upcoming years, we desperately need regulations to protect our nation’s outdoor workforce.

Current Protections for Outdoor Workers are Not Enough

No federal laws exist to protect workers from workplace conditions involving extreme heat. What’s more, only a handful of states have laws that require businesses to provide workers with shade, water, and breaks from the heat.

Currently, OSHA does not offer specific legal protections for workers in extremely hot conditions, as most of the organization’s guidance for these employees falls under the “general duty” clause. Essentially, this blanket section covers on-the-job hazards that do not already have their own established protocols.

This legal ambiguity makes it incredibly difficult to protect workers proactively. Instead of stepping in with protocols to ensure workers have sufficient water, shade, and rest, OSHA is relegated to issuing fines after a heat-related death or injury occurs.

In the absence of federal regulations, the state of Texas has even enacted legislation that protects its booming construction sector by stripping labor rights from its workers. Despite this summer’s scalding temperatures, Governor Greg Abbott did away with heat-related safeguards established by cities like Dallas and Austin. His actions underscore the need for the federal government to step in with a nationwide standard.

Record-breaking temperatures have caused outdoor workers across the country to suffer heat-related symptoms.

Proposed Heat-Related Protections for Workers

In a 2021 public statement, the Biden administration came out in support of national regulations protecting workers from heat stress. President Biden asked OSHA to draft nationwide requirements designed to prevent heat-related illnesses in the workplace, but to date, OSHA has failed to come back with a proposal.

Because the federal government has dragged its feet, this legislation may be in danger of being put on hold indefinitely. A nationwide standard like this takes time to complete, and President Biden’s first term is approaching its end. If he is not reelected, the next presidential administration may neglect to continue the process.

As a result, states in the US are currently left to their own devices when it comes to protecting workers from extreme heat. Presently, only California, Colorado, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington have laws in place protecting outdoor workers from excessive heat. However, these laws vary, and some are more effective than others. For example, Colorado’s heat-related legislation is restricted only to employees in the agricultural sector.

Why National Regulations Protecting Outdoor Workers are Needed

Reports from OSHA found that 121 workers died due to work-related heat stress between 2017 and 2022, but this number fails to represent the full scope of the problem. Many heat-related deaths are instead reported as workplace accidents or pre-existing medical conditions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics cites 436 work-related deaths due to excessive heat.

Death is not the only danger of working outdoors in extreme heat. According to a study in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, farm laborers can suffer acute kidney damage by working only one shift in abnormally hot conditions.

Tips to Help Workers Currently Struggling with Heat Stress

It will take years before OSHA’s efforts to create a national standard to protect outdoor workers from heat stress are in effect. Federal legislation does not currently seem to be on the horizon, and struggling workers need assistance with the threats they face now.

If you personally oversee outdoor labor, ask your staff how you might make their jobs easier and safer. Ensure your employees are aware of the symptoms of heat stress and have this information readily available to them. Similarly, encourage buddy systems where workers can keep each other accountable for drinking water, monitor each other for signs of heat exhaustion, and stay safe. It is essential that they recognize the signs of heat-related illnesses and provide immediate assistance to those in need.

Another way to show your support is to lend financial backing to groups in your area dedicated to worker safety. Even a committed handful of concerned advocates can impact policy at the state or municipal level.

This summer’s record temperatures had millions under heat advisories, but those who work outdoors were especially vulnerable. With predictions that heat waves in the coming years will be even more common, we need regulations in place to guarantee that all workers have access to the life-saving water, shade, and rest they need.

George Salinas is the Founder, George Salinas Injury Lawyers.

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