Biden administration unveils plan to protect workers and communities from extreme heat

The Biden administration on Monday announced new measures to protect Americans from the extreme heat, after hundreds of people died in unprecedented heat waves in the Pacific Northwest this summer, and power outages caused Hurricane Ida last month killed elderly Louisiana residents as temperatures soared.

Heat is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the country, and heat waves are becoming more intense and frequent as the planet warms. In a statement released on Monday, President Biden vowed that Americans will not face this threat alone.

“Rising temperatures pose an imminent threat to millions of American workers exposed to the elements, to children in schools without air conditioning, to the elderly in nursing homes without cooling resources, and especially to underprivileged communities.” , wrote President Biden. “Today, I am mobilizing a whole-of-government effort to protect workers, children, seniors and at-risk communities from extreme heat.”

As part of this effort, the United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, along with other federal agencies, have been tasked with ensuring safe working conditions and protecting health. public by providing cooling assistance to people in their homes and community cooling centers.

The devastating effects of other climate disasters like hurricanes and floods are often felt in the evening news, but the toll of heat-related illnesses often escapes the public eye, experts say, largely because of the people affected.

Millions of workers experience heat stress on the job, with agriculture and construction workers at the greatest risk. Workers indoors without adequate cooling, especially in warehouses, factories and restaurants, are also at risk. Hazardous exposures disproportionately affect people of color, and heat-related deaths are often misclassified or unreported, experts say, especially when workers are undocumented.

The heat also endangers people living in urban centers with few parks to provide shade, as well as the elderly, children and economically disadvantaged groups without access to air conditioning.

A “potentially staggering” peak of dangerous heat

Hundreds of people have died from heat-related illnesses and thousands sought emergency treatment during record heat that overwhelmed local cooling centers and first responders in the Pacific Northwest in June. An Oregon farm worker died as temperatures soared to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, underscoring the urgent need for federal heat standards to protect workers. After Hurricane Ida left much of Louisiana without electricity, a dozen of the 28 storm-related deaths were attributed to heat exposure.

The Pacific Northwest heat wave would not have been possible without climate change, scientists say.

And without global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a 2019 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists warned, the United States faces a “potentially staggering” spike in dangerous heat over the next several decades. .

By mid-century, the country will likely experience an average of 36 days a year when the temperature “appears” to exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit, more than double historical levels, according to the report.

“Workers’ rights advocates and environmental groups have long called for protections against heat, so it’s great to see OSHA make this a reality,” said Kristina Dahl, senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists . “Having said that, we do know that the OSHA Average Rule takes about eight years to develop.”

Workers are in desperate need of some of the proposed measures, such as increased enforcement and hot weather inspections to ensure employees have shade, water and other protection, said Dahl.

“But we also hope that, because there is already so much evidence in the published literature and in the government’s recommendations on worker safety, we might somehow speed up the process of developing. rules in this case, ”she said. “Workers just can’t wait eight years for this kind of rule. “

More than 815 workers died of heat stress between 1992 and 2017.

Democrats have introduced bills to ensure workers are protected from heat in recent sessions of Congress. In March Democrats Alex Padilla of California and Sherrod Brown of Ohio introduced a heat protection bill named after Asunción Valdivia, a 53-year-old Californian farmer who died of heatstroke in 2004. , after picking grapes for 10 hours at 105 degrees. Heat.

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Last month, senators urged the Ministry of Labor to act quickly to protect workers because “climate change is making the problem worse.”

In a statement, Padilla said he was grateful that the Biden administration was acting to protect workers from heat-related illness and death. “We need to address the growing health risks of extreme heat in the workplace, especially for low-income communities and communities of color who are suffering the brunt of this climate crisis,” he said. declared.

The work of outdoor workers is often essential to our society and how it functions, and it is often very invisible, Dahl said.

“One in five Americans has a job that requires work outside the home,” she said. “The next time you put lettuce on your plate for dinner or hear an asphalt truck outside, take a moment to think about how this person’s job is putting them in jeopardy and you. take advantage. “

She added: “And think about what kind of society you would like to live in, which hopefully is a society where workers are safe and protected because they keep the rest of us safe, healthy. and fed. “

About Hector Hedgepeth

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