The Biden administration is pushing for new worker protections after record-setting temperatures across the country left dozens of workers injured and dead this summer.
The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Monday that it will prioritize inspections on hot days, target high-risk industries nationally, and, as reported earlier this summer, begin developing a federal rule to protect workers from heat-related illnesses, a move long sought by worker advocates.
The announcement comes a month after a Columbia Journalism Investigations-NPR investigation revealed a dramatic rise in preventable worker deaths from high temperatures. Two public radio collaboratives – The Texas Newsroom and the California Newsroom – and Public Health Watch, a nonprofit investigative news organization, also participated in the investigation.
President Biden, who released a joint statement alongside OSHA, called the initiative an “all-of-government effort to protect workers, children, seniors, and at-risk communities from extreme heat.”
In August CJI-NPR’s investigation determined that over the last decade, 384 workers died from environmental heat exposure in the U.S.
The fatalities included workers performing essential services across the country: farm laborers in California and Nebraska, construction workers and trash collectors in Texas, tree trimmers in North Carolina and Virginia. The news organizations’ analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed the three-year average of worker heat deaths had doubled since the early 1990s.
Workers of color have borne the brunt: Since 2010, for example, Hispanics have accounted for a third of all heat fatalities, yet they represent a fraction — 17% — of the U.S. workforce. Health and safety experts attribute this unequal toll to Hispanics’ overrepresentation in industries vulnerable to dangerous heat, such as construction and agriculture.
In its press release, OSHA said that despite “widespread under-reporting, 43 workers died from heat illness in 2019, and at least 2,410 others suffered serious injuries and illnesses.”
Congressional Democrats who had previously introduced legislation to create a heat standard applauded Monday’s announcement.
“Without urgent action, the human and financial costs of excessive heat will continue to climb,” said Rep. Robert Scott of Virginia, who chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor.
David Michaels, who led OSHA during the Obama administration, called the new measures “a major step forward.” Michaels said presidents rarely chime in on OSHA standards, suggesting the White House is committed to fast-tracking a heat rule.
“It is unusual for this to happen, especially so early in the rulemaking process,” he said.
Installments in the worker heat series continue this week.