The U.S. just went through its hottest summer on record. Searing heat killed hundreds and sickened countless more, including some people who were on the job. While summer is officially over, the heat is set to continue this week across the parts of the country this week.
Alicia Lara was among the workers on the frontlines of the heat. She has worked at a Sacramento Jack in the Box drive-through window for more than three years. Her job requires being crammed with three other people into a small room next to the kitchen, which has a fryer and a grill in it. In the summer, it can get steamy—especially with an unreliable air conditioner.
This past June, as temperatures soared well past 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), the AC unit conked out for a full week. It was so hot that she and her co-workers feared for their safety.
“I just felt so hot, I felt dizzy,” Lara said about her experience on June 18, speaking through a translator. That day, temperatures reached 107 degrees Fahrenheit (42 degrees Celsius). The drive-through window provided no relief.
“When I opened the window, I just felt more heat from the outside. It was really uncomfortable.”
Another colleague, who works the grill, began to feel nauseated and on the verge of fainting. But when the two women went to their supervisor about the dangerous conditions, Lara said the manager thought the women were exaggerating.
“The girl who works in the kitchen told the manager that she was really hot, that she felt that she was going to faint,” said Lara. But the manager, Lara said, blamed the woman’s dizzy spell on “menopause.”
In response to this mistreatment, Lara and her coworkers went on strike, picketing outside the building with help from the Fight for 15 campaign. The staff also filed complaints with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health and Sacramento County Public Health saying their employer was putting them in danger. Yet no federal standards have protected workers in Lara’s position or others laboring both indoors and out from dangerous heat, even as this summer has been rife with stories of heat-related suffering on the job.
The Biden administration is planning to change that. It announced a multi-agency plan on Monday to protect workers and from extreme heat. The biggest part of the announcement was the Occupational Safety and Health Administration saying that it will issue a new rule to ensure workers are kept safe from heat. That would provide crucial protections in the face of rising temperatures, though if they’ll be enough remains to be seen.
“It’s welcome and it is overdue,” said Juley Fulcher, worker health and safety advocate at Public Citizen who has spent years calling for a federal heat standard.
Existing labor protections under OSHA for heat are all but nonexistent, but the agency has known that high temperatures pose a mortal threat to workers for decades. In 1972, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published a report on the effects of heat stress on workers in the U.S. and issued recommendations for an OSHA heat standard. Among those recommendations were mandatory hourly breaks and access to water. NIOSH has issued periodic revisions since then, but nearly 50 years on, no actual protections have been put into place despite decades of pressure from scientists and advocates.
The Biden administration’s Monday announcement will finally begin to right that wrong. The White House said OSHA will start its rulemaking process on extreme heat next month.
Lara experienced triple-digit heat in her workplace. Farmworkers this summer were exposed to deleterious heat across the West as well, including areas where the ground—which can hold more heat than the air—temperatures reached a staggering 145 degrees Fahrenheit (63 degrees Celsius). But heat can begin to take a toll on workers at much lower temperatures.
“There are things employers need to do when temperatures are above 100 degrees, but then you also need to do something when it gets above 90 degrees. If it’s hard labor that you’re doing, you’ve got to look at even 80 degrees as a danger,” Fulcher said in an interview before the new heat rulemaking was announced.
OSHA’s rule will focus on interventions and workplace inspections for all days when the heat index exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius). The Biden administration has also committed to taking other steps to protect workers, including putting more efforts into investigating workplace complaints on hot days, expanding education for employers on how to prevent heat-related illness, and performing more surprise inspections that aren’t prompted by complaints, all of which could help ensure employers are staying in line.
The agency is also forming a working group under the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health focused on heat injury and illness prevention, which it said will help to find and share best practices to protect workers. In addition, by next summer, the White House said OSHA will create a national emphasis program for heat inspections, committing resources and staff time to the issue and focusing especially on high-risk industries like construction and agriculture, and on warehouses, factories, and kitchens.
Though the steps toward prioritizing heat-related illness are welcome, Fulcher said they have limitations. One issue is that a final heat standard could take years to finalize. On average, Fulcher said, it takes 8 years to complete new rules. She encouraged officials to hurry up. A study released just last month found that worldwide, heat-related deaths rose 70% from 1980 to 2016. Given that climate change is going to increase heat even further, the need to act is more urgent than ever.
“We need something in place right now to protect workers,” she said. Fulcher also noted that undocumented workers face particular risks, given the fear of reprisal and the fact that they make up half of all farm laborers, and that the White House should include protections for them in their plans.
“OSHA doesn’t have the personnel right now to move fast or to do more than one thing at a time,” she said. “So what we really need to see is more funding and support from the White House and Congress for OSHA.”
Public Citizen and other groups are calling for an interim emergency heat standard to protect workers immediately. The need for speed is acute as is the need to listen to workers.
“It is important, vital that OSHA have better standards for strict standards so that companies are forced to hear us, so that we are recognized and protected,” Lara said.
Jody Serano provided translations for this story.