Biden to clamp down on 80-plus degree workplaces after record heat causes hundreds of deaths

·3 min read
An orchard worker unloads a bag of pears in Hood River, Oregon on August 13. Amid an abnormal heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, farm workers are having their days, and profits, cut short by the extreme temperatures (AFP via Getty Images)
An orchard worker unloads a bag of pears in Hood River, Oregon on August 13. Amid an abnormal heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, farm workers are having their days, and profits, cut short by the extreme temperatures (AFP via Getty Images)

The Biden administration is to tackle how workplaces respond to extreme temperatures as part of new initiatives in the wake of hundreds of US deaths this summer from record-breaking heatwaves driven by the climate crisis.

The White House announced on Monday that the plan will involve a number of federal agencies to tackle heat hazards including the departments of Labor, Health, Homeland Security and Agriculture.

This summer the US broke a heat record set during the historic “Dust Bowl” summer of 1936. In the Pacific Northwest, a heatwave in late June led to around 600 excess deaths, The Lancet said, along with thousands of hospitalisations. It was the deadliest weather-related event in the history of Washington state.

Following the extreme event, an international team of climate scientists reported that the heatwave would have been “virtually impossible” without human-caused climate change.

And after power outages caused by Hurricane Ida last month, the Louisiana Health Department said the deaths of a 69-year-old man and an 85-year-old woman were due to excessive heat.

“While climate-related disasters like hurricanes, wildfires, and floods produce dramatic images of devastation, extreme heat often takes place out of sight and out of the news. But heat is the nation’s leading weather-related killer,” the administration stated.

Among the actions will be the first-ever, workplace heat standard, established and enforced by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Along with a heat-specific standard, OSHA will use its existing rules to clamp down on employees being forced to work in dangerously hot indoor, and outdoor, workplaces.

OSHA will prioritise heat-related interventions like scheduled and unscheduled workplace inspections on days when the heat index exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Workers in agriculture and construction are often at highest risk, but the problem affects all workers exposed to heat, including indoor workers without climate-controlled environments,” a statement read, referencing delivery workers and those employed in warehouses, factories, and kitchens.

“Too often, heat-induced injuries and illnesses are misclassified or not reported, especially in sectors that employ vulnerable and undocumented workers.”

Among the heat-related deaths this summer was Sebastian Francisco Perez, a 38-year-old immigrant farm worker from Guatemala, who collapsed and died while working at a nursery in St Paul, Oregon.

OSHA is working to develop a programme of heat inspections targeting high-risk industries before the summer 2022 heat season.

Along with vulnerable workers, the new initiatives will also look to alleviate the risks for vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly and the economically disadvantaged.

Debra Moore, 68, died during the Pacific Northwest heatwave after suffering a fall on a street in Enumclaw, Washington, The New York Times reported. Ms Moore had recently undergone chemotherapy and was using a cane or a walker, said local police. She was not discovered for several hours as houses surrounding where she had fallen had closed blinds to shield from the heat.

The White House release also noted that heat exposure disproportionately impacts Black and Brown people both in workplaces and communities.

“Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, as well as people with low incomes, are more likely to live in areas with intensifying heat impacts and often have less access to air conditioning and other risk-reduction resources,” it noted.

The plans will provide more “cooling assistance” to low-income residences like access to in-home air conditioning, and public cooling centres. Part of the plan is to use schools for the latter.

There will also be focus on increasing the number of trees and greening projects in neighbourhoods that suffer from the “urban heat island” effect – where vast expanses of manmade materials like glass, asphalt and concrete trap excessive heat.

A new report from the Environmental Protection Agency looked at data on 49 cities and found that increases in high-temperature days are projected to cause premature deaths. Additionally, Black residents are 40-59 per cent more likely than non-Black individuals to currently live in high-impact areas.

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