Biden Administration Seeks New Rules to Protect Workers From Extreme Heat

The White House is pursuing new regulations that would throw cold water on hot workplaces.

Heaven Scent
Vlad Georgescu / Getty Images

Sept. 22 marked the first day of autumn. And so, summer is officially over. For climate scientists and for American workers, however, the memory of summer 2021 won’t soon fade. Not because it was an especially fun summer, but because it was an especially hot one—particularly in the Pacific Northwest, where high temperatures shattered records in June. In Portland, Ore., for example, the mercury reached a record 112 degrees. Seattle likewise set an all-time record of 108 degrees. Even the coastal city of Quillayute, Wash., reached triple-digit temperatures, peaking at a record 110 degrees.

Temperatures that high aren’t just uncomfortable. They’re also dangerous. Although 2020 data aren’t yet available, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says 43 workers died of heat-related illness in the United States in 2019.

Thanks to climate change, scientists say heat waves that used to be mild and rare are becoming extreme and routine. On Sept. 20, President Joe Biden, therefore, announced new actions to protect workers and communities from extreme heat.

Most significantly, the president has instructed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which oversees workplace safety, to develop a new workplace heat standard that will help prevent heat illness in both outdoor and indoor work settings, including farms, construction sites, warehouses, factories, and kitchens.

“Extreme heat is gaining in frequency and ferocity due to climate change, threatening communities across the country. In fact, the National Weather Service has confirmed that extreme heat is now the leading weather-related killer in America,” Biden said in a statement, in which he called extreme weather from climate change "a blinking code red for our nation."

He added: "Rising temperatures pose an imminent threat to millions of American workers exposed to the elements, to kids in schools without air conditioning, to seniors in nursing homes without cooling resources, and particularly to disadvantaged communities. My administration will not leave Americans to face this threat alone.”

Although OSHA will seek input from employers and technical experts before developing and implementing regulations, The Washington Post reports that new standards likely will include strict rules about breaks, shade access, and water availability, with which businesses would have to comply on hot days of a pre-determined temperature. In Oregon, for example, emergency rules imposed this summer require employers to provide workers with cold water, adequate shade, and breaks every two hours when workplace temperatures exceed 90 degrees.

While OSHA is engaged in the rulemaking process—which could take up to seven years—the Department of Labor has instructed it to safeguard workers by prioritizing heat-related interventions on days when the heat index exceeds 80 degrees. On these days, the Biden administration says OSHA will allocate additional resources to responding to heat-related complaints and will expand the scope of workplace inspections to address heat-related hazards. Meanwhile, OSHA also will institute a campaign to educate and assist employers on heat illness prevention.

Workers aren’t the only victims of heat illness, however—and they aren’t the only beneficiary of White House assistance. In addition to its OSHA actions, the Biden administration announced additional support to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), whose Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) provides grants to state and tribal governments for the purpose of assisting low-income households who need help meeting their home energy needs. The additional support will allow LIHEAP grantees to address extreme heat by helping citizens purchase air-conditioning units, increasing cooling assistance payments for electric bills, establishing cooling centers, and conducting targeted outreach to ensure the safety of at-risk households on hot days.

The U.S.mEnvironmental Protection Agency (EPA) also is contributing to the White House effort: It’s using funds from the American Rescue Plan to provide technical assistance to school districts to help them establish neighborhood cooling centers at public schools in socially vulnerable communities.

As it turns out, those communities are the ones that are most susceptible to heat illness—both at home and at work. A new EPA analysis, for example, finds that black individuals are up to 59% more likely than non-black individuals to live in areas that will be impacted by extreme heat in the future.

Concluded U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh in a statement, “Throughout the nation, millions of workers face serious hazards from high temperatures both outdoors and indoors. Amid changing climate, the growing frequency and intensity of extreme heat events is increasing the dangers workers face, especially for workers of color who disproportionately work in essential jobs in tough conditions.”

View Article Sources
  1. "Climate Change and Social Vulnerability in the United States." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2021.