May 17, 2022 / Ryanna Quazi

Momentum Builds for Protecting Workers from Heat-Related Illnesses

In 2021, NPR published an article on the story of Cruz Beltran, a farmworker in Grand Island, Nebraska, who died from heat stroke after working in a cornfield for 20-plus hours in 90-degree heat. After an inspection, OSHA found that the company Beltran worked for did not make sure that workers took adequate breaks in the shade or drank water to stay hydrated. OSHA determined that the lack of action from the employer led to Beltran’s death. The company was fined $11,641 and was required to train its employees on heat illnesses.

Beltran is not the only worker in the United States to die from heat-related illnesses. Data from the 2014 OSHA press release showed that in 2012, there were 31 heat illness-related worker deaths in the U.S. A joint investigation conducted by NPR, the Columbia Journalism School, and other media and advocacy organizations showed at least 384 U.S. workers have died from heat exposure in the last decade. Many of these individuals worked in construction, trash collecting, and—like Beltran—farming.

Government statistics suggest the scope of the problem. For example, according to a report by EPA, from 2001 to 2010, 20 states reported 28,000 hospitalizations that resulted from heat-related illnesses, and CDC has determined that approximately 658 people per year die from heat-related illnesses. But the number of people who die from heat-related illnesses may be much higher than indicated by federal data. One reason for this discrepancy, as the CDC report (PDF) explains, is that healthcare providers are not required to provide data on heat-related illnesses and deaths to public health agencies.

The risk for these illnesses disproportionately increases during the summer. Now that summer is upon us, people will soon begin to spend more time outdoors and take part in activities such as swimming at the beach. Furthermore, workers who work in outdoor environments and high-risk indoor environments will continue to earn a living in harsh heat conditions while putting themselves at risk for heat stroke and heat exhaustion.

Legislation to Protect Workers

The federal government and several state legislatures have either introduced or passed bills to address the effects of extreme heat. The bills highlighted below affect workplaces or workers, including student athletes and outdoor workers. These bills are good examples of how states can address the health effects of extreme heat by engaging with different stakeholders.

Virginia Senate Bill 161. This bill was recently signed into law by Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin. Under this law, the Virginia Department of Education will work with the Department of Health, the Virginia Athletic Association, and other relevant stakeholders to develop guidelines that schools will use to teach coaches, student athletes, and parents about heat-related illnesses and injuries.

Florida Senate Bill 732. This bill was introduced in the Florida legislature in late 2021 to address heat-related illnesses and injuries in outdoor workers. Employers in fields where individuals work in outdoor environments, including but not limited to agriculture and construction, must provide training to employees about heat-related illnesses and how to stay safe at work. These employers will be required to provide drinking water and access to shade to help workers cope with the effects of heat. Training will be regulated by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Department of Health to approve training programs, trainers, and certifications.

U.S. House of Representatives Bill 7534. This bill, introduced to the House on April 18, would require that the Department of Housing and Urban Development “establish an excess urban heat mitigation grant program.” Grants can be used to build cooling centers and green roofs, plant trees, and implement other heat mitigation practices to help urban communities deal with the effects of extreme heat. Eligible recipients of these grants include nonprofit organizations and state and local governments.

Other Government Actions

Furthermore, the National Integrated Heat Health Information System (NIHHIS), which was developed by both CDC and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, hosted its first virtual national meeting in late April. The virtual meeting showcased strategies and resources that can be used to fight the effects of extreme heat on communities, including workers. The meeting brought together a diverse range of stakeholders, including federal agencies, state and local jurisdictions, and community organizations.

The AIHA Thermal Stress Working Group also presented at the NIHHIS National Meeting. The working group noted that OSHA data shows that for every one-degree increase in temperature, the risk of heat-related illness or injury increases by 1 percent. If you would like to join, please visit the working group’s webpage.

In April, Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh announced the National Emphasis Program for heat-related illnesses and injuries. Under this program, OSHA will target specific workplaces in 70 high-risk indoor and outdoor industries for inspections on days that the National Weather Service has issued a heat advisory or warning. This program will allow OSHA to prevent heat-related illnesses and deaths by providing suggestions on how employers can make workplaces safer, such as by providing water to employees. 

On May 3, OSHA also held a virtual stakeholder meeting to discuss the agency's plans, initiatives, and programs to address heat-related illnesses and deaths. The agency has released many fact sheets that employers can use to educate their employees on heat-related illnesses.

Get Involved in Heat Stress Policy

Governments at both the state and federal levels have created momentum for protecting workers from the effects of heat. If you want to get involved in heat stress policy, one way to do so is to join AIHA’s Government Relations Committee, where you can help set AIHA’s public policy agenda, help develop model language for legislation, and much more.

Related: ReadHeat Hazards: Protecting Workers in Hot Environments” and “It’s the Heat—And the Humidity: Critical Factors for Heat Stress Assessment and Prevention” in The Synergist.

Ryanna Quazi

Ryanna Quazi is AIHA’s advocacy associate.


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