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As Climate Heats Up, Government Must Protect Workers From Heat

Organizations File Petition – Joined by Former OSHA Officials – Urging Agency to Issue National Heat Protection Standard

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The federal government must establish protections for workers who are subject to extreme heat, more than 130 organizations said today in a petition (PDF) to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Joining the petition were former OSHA Directors Dr. Eula Bingham and Dr. David Michaels, former California/OSHA Director Ellen Widess, heat illness prevention researcher Dr. Marc Schenker and 89 other individuals.

The filing of the petition marks the launch of a national campaign to raise awareness around the impacts of climate change on the health and safety of workers, as well as other vulnerable populations, while advancing standards to prevent injuries and deaths from outdoor and indoor heat stress.

During a telephone press conference to unveil the urgent call for action, the brother of a farmworker who died from heat shared his family’s experience. Other speakers included an airline catering truck driver; a telecommunications worker; Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers; Jeannie Economos, pesticide safety and environmental health project coordinator of the Farmworker Association of Florida; and U.S. Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.).

Already, heat is the leading weather-related killer in the U.S., and climate change is resulting in more frequent days of extreme heat. With record-breaking summers becoming the norm, outdoor and indoor workers across a wide variety of workplaces will be at greater risk for workplace heat illness.

“There is an undiagnosed epidemic of heat-related illness and death in this country, and the problem will get much worse very quickly because of global warming,” said David Arkush, managing director of Public Citizen’s Climate Program. “Some of our most vulnerable workers are at the highest risk. We need to protect them right away, and we need aggressive action to halt greenhouse gas pollution and stop climate change.”

“It is inhumane and inexcusable that despite the long record of success of California’s worker safety agency, Cal/OSHA, in reducing heat-induced worker death and illness, the majority of U.S. workers who are at risk for heat stress are unprotected by any heat standard,” said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, founder and senior adviser of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

“We attended the funerals of too many California farm workers who needlessly died from extreme heat,” said Arturo S. Rodriguez, United Farm Workers president. “After a spate of heat fatalities of California farm workers, in 2005, the UFW helped persuade then-Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to issue the first comprehensive standards in the nation to prevent heat death and illness by farm and other outdoor workers. We worked with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown to strengthen the regulations in 2015. Republicans and Democrats can take action today to stop these unnecessary deaths by creating national standards such as those we won in California.”

“United Airlines is a company that makes billions in profit, but the trucks I work in do not have air conditioning,” said Arthur Fatu, a driver for United Airlines Catering Operations in Houston, Texas. “I call my truck a traveling sauna. I have suffered from heat rash, dizziness and headache while working on hot days. Working in extreme heat puts us at risk of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.”

Also on Tuesday, Public Citizen released a report analyzing the number of agricultural and construction workers in areas of the country that experienced extreme heat in July 2017 and over the July Fourth holiday week in 2018.

“We learned from the Deepwater Horizon cleanup operation that even in high heat conditions, using the correct precautions can save lives,” said Michaels, OSHA director from 2009-2016. “When Public Citizen and other groups concerned about worker protection petitioned OSHA for a heat standard in 2011, I could not grant the petition because the OSHA health standards staff was working on new rules to protect workers from silica, beryllium and infectious diseases. Now that two of those standards have been completed, it is time for OSHA to protect all workers from heat.”

Read statements (PDF) from other groups and workers.

More about the campaign – including the full list of organizations supporting the effort – can be found here.

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