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April 26, 2019
The Honorable R. Alexander AcostaSecretary of LaborUnited States Department of Labor200 Constitution Ave, NWWashington, DC 20210
Loren SweattDeputy Assistant Secretary of LaborOccupational Safety and Health AdministrationUnited States Department of Labor200 Constitution Ave, NWWashington, DC 20210 Dear Secretary Acosta and Deputy Assistant Secretary Sweatt,
This Workers Memorial Week, we the undersigned organizations call on you to take swift action to protect workers from the growing dangers of climate change and rising temperatures in the workplace. During this week we remember those who have suffered or died on the job and renew the fight for safe workplaces. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has an obligation to prevent future heat-related injuries, illnesses and fatalities by issuing a heat stress standard for outdoor and indoor workers.
Heat is the leading weather-related killer, and it is becoming more dangerous as 18 of the last 19 years were the hottest on record. Excessive heat can cause heat stroke and even death if not treated properly. It also exacerbates existing health problems like asthma, kidney failure, and heart disease. Workers in agriculture and construction are at highest risk, but the problem affects all workers exposed to heat, including indoor workers without climate-controlled environments.
Heat stress killed 815 U.S. workers and seriously injured more than 70,000 workers from 1992 through 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, this is likely a vast underestimate, given that injuries and illnesses are underreported in the U.S., especially in the sectors employing vulnerable and often undocumented workers. Further, heat is not always recognized as a cause of heat-induced injuries or deaths and can be easily misclassified, because many of the symptoms overlap with other more common diagnoses.
Behind the statistics are individual workers who will never return home after a hard day’s work, or who will be forever changed from irreversible injuries and illnesses:
In 2018, Peggy Frank, a 63-year-old mail carrier for the United States Postal Service, died from hyperthermia (an abnormally high body temperature) in her non-air-conditioned mail truck on a day that reached 115 degrees. In 2012, Mark Rainey, a temporary employee of A.H. Sturgill Roofing Inc., died from heat stroke after engaging in strenuous labor in hot working conditions on his first day on the job. In 2011, Verizon denied field technician Brent Robinson’s request to be released from a job after he reported feeling sick while working in extreme heat. Later that day he fell unconscious and died. In 2011, an Amazon warehouse employee contacted OSHA to report that 15 workers had collapsed when the warehouse heat index – a measure that includes humidity – exceeded 100 degrees. In 2008, Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a pregnant teen farmworker, died from heat exhaustion after laboring more than nine hours without accessible shade or water.
In citation reports under its general duty clause, OSHA recommends that employers implement heat stress prevention programs. However, as these tragic fatalities demonstrate, most employers will not implement practices to prevent heat stress in their workplace unless they are required to do so. A federal heat stress standard would help to prevent countless illnesses and deaths caused by heat, benefiting workers and employers alike. In its absence, rising temperatures are projected to cause an increase in heat-related workplace illness, a dramatic loss in labor capacity, decreased productivity, and an increase in workers compensation and hospital-related costs.
The solutions to heat stress are common sense: water, rest in a shaded or climate-controlled location, and acclimatization to the heat, among other measures. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health issued criteria for a heat standard in 1972, updating it in 1986 and 2016. Last summer, more than 130 organizations and former OSHA administrators petitioned OSHA for a heat stress standard, receiving bicameral congressional support. Meanwhile, California, Washington, Minnesota and the U.S. military have issued heat protections. In the absence of a federal standard on heat, OSHA must rely on its “catch-all” general duty clause. While the general duty clause provides a general requirement that employers provide safe workplaces, it is more difficult to enforce than a dedicated standard. Notably, from 2013 through 2017, California used its heat standard to conduct 50 times more inspections resulting in a heat-related violation than OSHA did nationwide under its general duty clause.
It is likely to become even more difficult to protect workers from heart stress under the general duty clause in light of the 2019 Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission’s decision in Secretary of Labor v. A.H. Sturgill Roofing, Inc. During Mr. Rainey’s first day on the job as a temporary worker for A.H. Sturgill, he was admitted to the hospital with a core body temperature of 105 degrees after working in direct sunlight for five hours. He ultimately died from heat stroke. OSHA cited the company for a heat citation under the general duty clause. In a split decision, the Commission reversed the citation. The majority asserted, “The Secretary’s failure to establish the existence of an excessive heat hazard here illustrates the difficulty in addressing this issue in the absence of an OSHA standard.” OSHA has a single acceptable course of action in response to this decision: promulgate a heat standard to put employers on notice of what they must do to protect workers, and enforce the standard.
The OSHA website cautions, “Every year, thousands of workers become sick from occupational heat exposure, and some are fatally injured. These illnesses and fatalities are preventable.” With rising temperatures, we cannot afford for further inaction. This Workers Memorial Week, we call on OSHA to heed its own warnings and issue a comprehensive heat stress standard without delay.