Critics say new U.S. heat safety rules for workers don’t go far enough

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The White House this week responded to pressure from lawmakers and advocates and introduced new protections to ensure outdoor workers are protected from extreme heat, but critics say the measures don’t go far enough.

U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday directed the Department of Labor to issue a new heat hazard alert system that will ensure both workers and employers are educated about the hazards of working in high temperatures, and that protections are in place. The department will also step up workplace inspections and enforcement to ensure employers are protecting their workers.

“I want the American people to know help is here and we’re going to make it available to anyone who needs it,” Biden said while announcing the directive, pointing Americans to a new government website with resources for dealing with extreme heat.

The measures come as historically high temperatures continue to batter many parts of the country. More than 150 million U.S. residents, nearly half the country’s population, were under extreme heat alerts Friday.

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Amd the sweltering heat, Democratic Rep. Greg Casar of Texas on Tuesday staged a “thirst strike” calling for the Biden administration to quickly adopt a federal standard for occupational heat safety rules in order to protect workers.

Biden’s directive is a stopgap measure meant to buy Americans time as the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) works to create such a standard, which could make water and rest breaks for outdoor workers a legal requirement.

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Currently, OSHA has a general duty clause that requires employers to provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees,” but no specific policies regarding heat.

Only three states in the U.S. — California, Washington and Minnesota — have specific statewide laws in place that ensure worker protections related to heat.

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OSHA is currently convening a panel of businesses, local governments and non-profits to gather feedback on the proposed standard, but there is currently no timeline set for the rules to be finalized.

“A workplace heat standard has long been a top priority for the Department of Labor, but rulemaking takes time and working people need help now,” Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su said in a statement on Biden’s directive.

“Historically high temperatures impact everyone and put our nation’s workers at high risk.”

Casar and other Democrats praised Biden’s measures as proof their tactics had been heard by the White House.

“The Biden Administration understands that families across Texas and America deserve dignity on the job and protection from extreme heat,” Casar said in a statement Thursday.

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But the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health complained Friday the directives are not good enough.

“Workers are getting sick and dying every day from the extreme heat driven by climate change,” co-executive director Jessica Martinez said in a statement.

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The group called on Biden to order an emergency temporary standard to better protect workers from heat stress, establish a more stringent permanent threshold for protections and urge states to impose their own rules.

“This is no time for modest steps.”

The Biden administration says at least 436 people have died due to workplace heat exposure since 2011, on top of an average 2,700 cases per year of heat-related illness forcing workers to take days off from the job.

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OSHA has acknowledged those numbers are “likely vast underestimates.” Last year, the non-profit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen estimated heat exposure is responsible for at least 600 worker fatalities and 170,000 workplace injuries per year on average in the U.S., citing government data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and other research.

Casar’s thirst strike was also in protest of new Texas legislation that would strike down local laws deemed to exceed state rules. That would include ordinances in cities like Austin, Dallas and Houston that require employers at construction sites and other outdoor workplaces to schedule regular water and rest breaks for their workers.

Biden also announced Thursday that the Interior Department will spend $152 million to expand water storage and delivery systems in California, Colorado and Washington, where severe drought conditions are a chronic problem.

And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will get an additional $7 million to work with universities on developing better weather forecasting models to give communities more advance warning about extreme weather.

— with files from the Canadian Press

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