A new study in the journal Environmental Research Letters shows that extreme heat in the US has killed over 10,000 workers between 1973 and 2014. These workers suffered heat exhaustion and heat stroke, which made them vulnerable to other diseases such as heat rash, dizziness, and faintness. These findings bring into focus the problem of a fractured system of labor and job protection that has not kept pace with the vast increases in temperature observed across the planet.
In 1974, a British study revealed that only seven working-age men had died as a result of excessive heat during the summer. Today, heat has the capacity to kill more people than floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes combined.
However, as of now, there are no national or state protective measures in place for the tens of millions of workers exposed to extreme heat every year. Many buildings are constructed with inadequate air conditioning or contain inadequate cooling systems. Water used to cool buildings is sometimes contaminated with lead, which can exacerbate one of the more common health issues of outdoor workers: neurological diseases that can result from exposure to lead paint or dangerous silica dust.
Without air conditioning, exposed workers often work outside on platforms that are hotter than an average suburban summer day. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that electrical workers and construction workers had the greatest risk of heat stroke. Workers in manufacturing, transport, and the mining sector face even higher risks. Many factories use large cooling systems as a form of body heat management, but they are expensive to upgrade and cannot be retrofitted into older buildings.
It’s not a matter of whether these workers should be protected against heat—it’s a matter of how. And the answers to both questions lie with the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Although OSHA is the only federal agency in the US that deals with safety and health of American workers, it does not have comprehensive and consistent protection policies for heat.
In 1974, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued guidelines designed to save lives and prevent injuries when extreme heat hits workers. Since then, the OSHA has issued recommendations, inspection reports, and opinion pieces on the topic of heat—all of which fail to have any meaningful effect on workplace heat illness. What’s needed is more enforcement and more regulations.
Currently, the OSHA only does field-based inspections in extremely hot conditions, which leads to poor enforcement. Some workers have reported walking six hours to get to the nearest OSHA office and then having to wait over two days just to be inspected.
But this is where the federal government’s political machine comes in. Most states lack any meaningful injury or illness-prevention policies and do not have any federal enforcement mechanisms to protect workers against heat-related illnesses. For example, the state of Ohio now requires reporting for all cases of heat illness at work, but it does not have any mandatory plans for preventing heat illness.
Occupational heat illness is not a rare problem, it’s an ongoing hazard that has not been addressed in the past or even in the future. I have seen many coworkers suffer or die on the job because of this preventable and obvious problem. No worker should ever have to face death by heat while doing what they love.
Zahra Billoo is the Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-San Francisco Bay Area.