WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is pushing federal agencies to address the health effects of heat, including the first-ever labor standard aimed at protecting workers from extreme heat, as part of a growing recognition of the dangers of warming temperatures caused by the climate. change.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the Labor Department, will issue its first heat exposure rule to protect those who work outdoors in agriculture, construction and delivery services, as well as workers in warehouses, factories and kitchens.
It comes after a summer of record heatwaves in the western United States and British Columbia, which scientists say have been made more extreme by climate change. According to the National Weather Service, extreme heat is the country’s No. 1 weather-related killer.
“For the past few weeks, I’ve been traveling across the country to see with my own eyes the devastating human and economic toll of extreme weather exacerbated by climate change,” President Biden said in a statement. Rising temperatures pose an immediate threat to millions of American workers exposed to the elements, to children in schools without air conditioning, to seniors in nursing homes without refrigeration, and especially to underserved communities. My administration will not leave the Americans alone to face this threat.”
The government said it would form an inter-agency Heat Illness Prevention Work Group to better understand the challenges and best ways to protect workers from heat injuries.
In addition to writing the new rule, the Labor Department will prioritize heat-related interventions and work inspections on days when the heat index exceeds 80 degrees, the administration said. The department is also working to complete a program by next summer targeting industries at higher risk of heat injury and to devote more resources to inspections.
Experts said rules and policies to protect workers from extreme heat should have come much sooner — though depending on the details of how they’re written, they can be expensive for employers.
“Heat sickness has long been widely underreported and underreported — and now it’s getting even hotter,” said David Hondula, a professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University.
dr. Hondula noted that some states and professional organizations, such as the United States Soccer Federation, already set limits on when and how long employees can perform their duties in the heat.
Some of those guidelines, which could inform a federal rule, include mandatory breaks for people who work in high temperatures for certain periods, and in some cases, require requirements that stop when the heat index rises above a certain level. They also include requirements that employers provide shade, water and air conditioning where possible, and that employers provide access to medical care for employees who are regularly exposed to heat.
But if such guidelines are transposed into federal regulations, it could increase costs or decrease productivity for some industries — particularly requiring construction or other outdoor work to be completely halted under certain heat conditions, said Dr. Hondula.
“It’s fair to say it can be costly,” he said, noting that the economy was already bearing the brunt of diseases and deaths related to heat exposure. “Maybe we’re already absorbing some of the productivity costs,” he said.
Marc Freedman, vice president of workplace policy for the US Chamber of Commerce, said his organization looked forward to participating in OSHA’s rule-making process. But he noted that there were “unique difficulties” when it comes to creating a heat safety standard.
“Heat is a very challenging hazard to regulate because there is no common risk threshold and workers react differently to exposure,” Mr. Freedman said.
In addition to the new heat standards in the workplace, the Department of Health has already issued guidelines to allow the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, traditionally used to help people who can’t afford the heating bill during extreme cold, pay the cost of cover the air in the house. -conditioning and cooling centers during extreme heat.
And the Environmental Protection Agency is using funds from an economic stimulus bill passed this year to provide technical assistance in creating neighborhood cooling centers in public schools.
The new OSHA rule is one of the first direct government responses to an emerging field of research showing that extreme heat is harming and killing more workers and vulnerable populations.
A study published this summer found that heat contributes to far more workplace injuries than official data, and those injuries are especially common among the poorest workers. Warmer days mean not only more cases of heat stroke or exhaustion, but also injuries from falling, being hit by vehicles or mishandling machines because heat makes it difficult to concentrate, the researchers found.
And after Hurricane Ida ravaged New Orleans this month, more people in the city died from exposure to post-storm heat than from flooding.
A study published in May found that the growing risk of overlapping heat waves and power outages poses a serious threat to major U.S. cities. Power cuts have increased by more than 60 percent since 2015 as climate change has intensified heat waves, according to research in Environmental Science & Technology magazine. Using computer models to study three major U.S. cities, the authors estimate that a combined power outage and heat wave would expose at least two-thirds of residents to to heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
And other research suggests that rising temperatures are even widening the racial achievement gap in schools across the United States, further evidence that the burdens of climate change are disproportionately placed on people of color. In published a paper in the journal Nature Human Behavior, researchers found that students performed worse on standardized tests for each additional day of 80 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, even after controlling for other factors. Those effects were present in 58 countries, suggesting that association between heat exposure and impaired learning.