US workers suffering under extreme heat and lack of legislation
Richmond, Virginia/Mexico City — As the US endures record temperatures, people working in tough conditions from farms to construction sites have little respite from the heat — and are often unable or afraid to take breaks despite the risks to their health and even their lives.
Extreme heat is the top weather-related killer in the nation — yet protections for workers are widely lacking, according to advocates who say that failing to ensure people can take breaks for water or shade will lead to more severe illness, and deaths.
Eva Marroquin, 50, a mother-of-five from Austin, Texas, works jobs that include construction and cleaning — and sometimes finds herself defenceless against rising heat.
It has been much worse in 2023, Marroquin said, explaining how she had to seek medical advice after dehydration problems and recalling that she left a recent job with a nagging cough after working in a house with no air conditioning.
But missing work isn’t always an option.
“I don’t always want to cancel work because it’s a responsibility and customers won’t always agree,” said Marroquin, who is a member of the Workers Defense Project, which advocates for immigrant workers.
“Because I am a mother and I survive on that salary ... if I stop working, who is going to bring the salary to my house?”
As climate change fuels rising temperatures globally — Earth experienced its hottest three-month period on record from June to August — fears are growing over working conditions and labour rights, be it for fruit pickers or parcel delivery drivers.
Only about a tenth of US states — including California, Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington — have enacted specific, comprehensive heat protections for workers — and even those measures are works in progress, labour advocates say.
Industry groups have pushed back on some of the rules, saying they could saddle their businesses with additional costs.
But for workers, it can be a matter of life and death.
From 2011-2021, there were 436 work-related deaths due to environmental heat exposure, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“We’re talking about keeping people alive at work,” said Daniela Hernandez, state legislative co-ordinator with Workers Defense Action Fund, a Texas-based advocacy group affiliated with the Workers Defense Project.
“We can’t let another worker die in the heat.”
Workers fear reporting bosses and losing jobs
California has had specific heat rules in place for outdoor workers since 2005 — like access to water and shade — though campaigners have been pushing for more, including rules for indoor workers, which are currently being developed.
But in general, such laws are limited. In Colorado, they apply only to agricultural workers, for example, while in Minnesota, they only cover indoor workers.
In Oregon, new permanent rules took effect in 2023, requiring easy access to shade and drinking water for indoor and outdoor workers when the heat index is at or above 26.7°C.
When it tops 32.2°C, employers must implement a 10-minute cool down period for every two hours of work.
However, not all workers say they are seeing changes — and some are wary of reporting employers who flout the rules to the government’s occupational safety and health departments (OSHA), according to Kate Suisman, an attorney with the Portland-based Northwest Workers’ Justice Project.
“Workers are very, very afraid to lose their jobs. So co-operating with federal OSHA or Oregon OSHA or whoever — it is a risky thing,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
After a deadly “heat dome” — a mass of high-pressure air — broke temperature records in 2021 in the usually more temperate Pacific Northwest and parts of Canada, Oregon and neighboring Washington state responded with tougher or new heat rules.
Oregon lawmakers this year passed laws to increase the fines and penalties the state can levy on violators, and give workers the right to refuse “dangerous” tasks.
In Washington state, permanent outdoor heat rules requiring access to shade and water — which kick in at 26.7°C, or 11.1°C for workers wearing “non-breathable” clothing — took effect in July.
Washington in 2008 implemented heat rules for outdoor workers, though those were more limited in scope. The state also announced temporary emergency rules in 2021 and 2022 with certain requirements for rest and water starting at 31.7°C.
Even with these regulations, there is still frustration and a need for clarification on enforcement, according to Edgar Franks, political director for Familias Unidas por La Justicia (Families United for Justice), a union group. However, Franks said the new standard marked a decent starting point.
“Our idea would be that if other states are looking at Washington as an example that they improve on it,” he added.
Juanita Constible of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental non-profit, said the threat of heat to workers “is so under-appreciated”.
She co-authored a 2022 report that found hundreds of businesses had repeatedly violated California’s heat standard, but managed to avoid higher fines typically reserved for repeat offenders. In certain cases, penalties were massively reduced — or sometimes waived entirely, according to the research.
“Because a lot of heat-related illnesses can be relatively mild, treated with first aid, don’t require a ton of time off work, there’s sort of this perception that it’s not that big of a deal,” said Constible, a climate and health expert at NRDC.
Chris Begley, a UPS driver, died in August after collapsing in sweltering heat in Texas. As part of contract negotiations with the Teamsters Union, UPS had agreed to equip newly purchased vehicles with air conditioning starting next year.
In Texas — parts of which recently hit new record temperatures for September — lawmakers have tried to roll back worker protections, including against heat.
The state legislature approved a law this year that would prevent localities putting in place regulations that go further than state law allows.
Advocates said it threatened to effectively negate local ordinances on issues from wage theft to rest and water break requirements for workers in places like Austin.
But just before the law was slated to take effect this month, a Texas judge ruled it unconstitutional — though both backers and opponents have indicated the decision will likely not be the last word.
At the federal level, labour advocates have praised the Biden administration for taking steps in 2021 towards enacting regulations that could include required rest and water breaks for some workers — though implementation could take years.
Other localities are also trying to chart their own course.
In Florida, Miami-Dade County is moving forward on rules that could grant outdoor agriculture and construction workers access to a 10-minute break every two hours when the heat index tops 32.2°C.
For now, many workers like Marroquin in Texas say they continue to struggle and suffer. There are times she has had to stop working while on cleaning jobs because of the heat.
“(It) feels as stifling as when you open the oven when you bake bread,” she said. “It’s too hot and the heat gets into your head. It torments you; your body aches.”
Thomson Reuters Foundation
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