New York Attorney General Letitia James is leading a coalition of 10 attorneys general to protect workers from the dangers of exposure to extreme heat in the workplace. Today, James and the coalition petitioned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to implement a nationwide emergency extreme heat standard to take effect this summer to protect workers from heat exposure. Despite rising temperatures and intensifying heat waves, and the grave dangers they pose to workers, OSHA currently has no occupational heat standard in place. The attorneys general also called on Congress to pass pending legislation directing OSHA to promulgate an interim heat standard while it continues its rulemaking for a permanent standard, and they urged the White House to support these efforts to protect the nation’s most heat-vulnerable workers.
“With each passing summer, workers across the country continue to suffer the potentially deadly results of extreme heat exposure,” James said. “Before the summer heat once again sets in, we must protect our most vulnerable workers against the dangers of extreme heat by implementing an emergency extreme heat standard and ultimately set a permanent standard for all workers. Every American has the right to a safe workplace, and I encourage OSHA, Congress, and the White House to join us in ensuring we protect the health and wellbeing of all workers.”
Extreme heat refers to a period of excessively hot weather with above average temperatures, usually combined with high humidity. Climate change is increasing the severity, duration, and frequency of extreme heat events. Extreme heat exposure affects millions of workers across the country and can cause a range of heat-related illnesses, including heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Prolonged, repeated exposure to extreme heat can even cause chronic kidney disease. Extreme heat can also negatively impact preexisting medical conditions, such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and can even worsen psychiatric conditions.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at least 436 workers died from heat exposure from 2011 through 2021. Summer 2023 was the hottest summer ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere, bringing soaring temperatures and unrelenting heatwaves to communities across the United States. As a result, vulnerable workers such as farm and construction workers labored through unprecedented heat and humidity, ultimately resulting in deaths:
- In June 2023, a 46-year-old construction worker died from hyperthermia at an outdoor construction site in East Texas, when the region was experiencing daily high temperatures around 100°F.
- In June 2023, a 66-year-old postal worker who had delivered mail in Dallas, Texas for 35 years died of heat stroke while working in extreme heat conditions.
- In July 2023, a 26-year-old farmworker and father of two died of heat stroke after collapsing in a field near Yuma, Arizona as temperatures soared above 110°F.
- In July 2023, a 29-year-old Guatemalan immigrant died while picking fruit on a farm in Homestead, Florida during an unprecedented heatwave.
- In August 2023, a warehouse worker died while working in part of a distribution center in Memphis, Tennessee that did not have air conditioning.
James’ office said this summer is expected to be even hotter than last year, putting workers at even greater risk of heat-related illness, injury, and death.
In the petition, James and the coalition remind OSHA that the agency is legally obligated to set an emergency temporary standard if it finds that workers are exposed to a grave danger in the workplace and an emergency standard is necessary to protect workers from that danger. The potential dangers and impacts of extreme heat on vulnerable workers meet these factors for a range of occupations and are particularly evident for farmworkers and construction workers. Farmworkers are 35 times more likely to die of heat exposure than other members of the general population, and construction workers account for 36 percent of heat-related workplace deaths each year. Based on this evidence, the coalition calls on OSHA to fulfill its legal obligation to workers and issue an emergency temporary standard, including a heat exposure threshold and required preventative measures such as water breaks and shade, for farmworkers and construction workers — at a minimum — by May 1.
In addition, she and the coalition are calling on Congress to pass and the White House to sign the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness, Injury, and Fatality Prevention Act (H.R. 4897/S. 2501), legislation that would direct OSHA to establish near- and long-term measures to protect workers from extreme heat. The legislation is named for Asunción Valdivia, a farmworker who died of heatstroke after picking grapes for 10 hours in extreme heat.
Illness, injury, and death from heat exposure disproportionately impact workers of color and low-wage workers who are overrepresented in those occupations most vulnerable to extreme heat, including labor-intensive outdoor work like agriculture and construction. OSHA has previously recognized that certain workers are at an increased risk of occupational heat illness not only because of the nature of their work, but also because of factors such as race, ethnicity, or language.
Joining Attorney General James in petitioning OSHA and sending letters to Congress and the White House are the attorneys general of Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia.
“Due to climate change, New York State temperatures have risen three degrees per decade for the past 45 years. Workers are subjected to higher-than-ever temperatures as they labor in extreme heat,” said Charlene Obernauer, the executive director at the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH). “In New York City alone, there are an estimated 350 heat-exacerbated deaths annually, caused by heat-worsening existing chronic conditions. OSHA can and must do more to protect our country’s workforce — the time to act is now as temperatures continue to increase and show no signs of stopping.”
“In the summer of 2023, 95% of the American public faced local area heat alerts warning residents of deadly heat conditions and cautioning them to protect themselves,” said Juley Fulcher, worker health and safety advocate at Public Citizen, noted that 95% of Americans faced local area heat alerts last summer and 100 million people in the U.S. were exposed to these heat alerts for more than 30 days. “Despite the warnings, Americans went to work knowing they had no control over the simple, yet critical, protective measures that could prevent heat, illness, injury, or death — plenty of drinking water, breaks in a cool location, reduction in strenuous work during the hottest portions of the day,” she said. “OSHA has a responsibility to ensure workers are given these basic life-saving measures.”
Long Island Jobs with Justice Executive Director Ani Halasz echoed Fulcher’s sentiments. “Our region cannot thrive without the contributions of agriculture and infrastructure development. We depend on farmworkers to care for our land and construction and utilities workers to maintain our homes and communities. Outdoor temperatures are predicted to be higher this summer than they were last and with no occupational heat standard in place we are essentially sending workers into unsafe working conditions where they could lose their lives.”