Extreme Heat? There Are US Workers Blistering in It

Efforts are being made at state and federal levels, but in the meantime, the suffering continues
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 3, 2023 2:45 PM CDT
Extreme Heat? There Are US Workers Blistering in It
A FedEx employee works outside on Friday in Las Vegas.   (AP Photo/Ty O'Neil)

Santos Brizuela spent more than two decades laboring outdoors, persisting despite a bout of heatstroke while cutting sugar cane in Mexico and chronic laryngitis from repeated exposure to the hot sun while on various other jobs. But last summer, while on a construction crew in Las Vegas, he reached his breaking point. Exposure to the sun made his head ache immediately. He lost much of his appetite. Now at a maintenance job, Brizuela, 47, is able to take breaks. There are flyers on the walls with best practices for staying healthy—protections he hadn't been afforded before. "Sometimes as a worker you ask your employer for protection or for health- and safety-related needs, and they don't listen or follow," he said in Spanish through an interpreter.

A historic heat wave that began blasting the Southwest and other parts of the country this summer is shining a spotlight on one of the harshest, yet least-addressed effects of US climate change: the rising injuries and deaths of people who work in extreme heat, whether inside warehouses and kitchens or outside under the blazing sun. Many of them are migrants in low-wage jobs, per the AP. State and federal governments have long implemented federal procedures for environmental risks exacerbated by climate change, namely drought, flood, and wildfires. But extreme-heat protections have generally lagged, with "no owner" in state and federal governments, said Ladd Keith, an assistant professor of planning at the University of Arizona.

"In some ways, we have a very long way to catch up to the governance gap in treating the heat as a true climate hazard," Keith said. There is no federal heat standard in the US, despite an ongoing push from President Biden's administration to establish one. Most of the hottest US states currently have no heat-specific standards, either. Instead, workers in many states who are exposed to extreme heat are ostensibly protected by what's known as the "general duty clause," which requires employers to mitigate hazards that could cause serious injury or death. The clause permits state authorities to inspect work sites for violations, and many do, but there are no consistent benchmarks for determining what constitutes a serious heat hazard.

story continues below

Federal experts have recommended extreme-heat protections since 1972, but it wasn't until 1997 and 2006, respectively, that Minnesota and California adopted the first statewide protections. For a long time, they were the exception. But as heat waves get longer and hotter, the tide is starting to change. Now, several other states are considering similar laws or regulations. The Biden administration introduced new regulations in 2021 that would develop heat safety standards and strengthen required protective measures for most at-risk private sector workers, but the mandates are likely subject to years of review. For now, protections for workers are largely at the discretion of individual employers. "It all comes down to the dollar," says Vince Saavedra of the Southern Nevada Building Trades. "But I'll challenge anybody to go work outside with any of these people, and then tell me that we don't need these regs." Much more on the issue here.

(More extreme heat stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.