5 things to know about Biden’s worker heat protection proposal

The Biden administration earlier this week proposed the country’s first-ever federal standards to protect workers from heat as climate change drives temperatures to record-breaking levels.

The rule is not yet final; it is still subject to public comments and consideration of that public input. But it could potentially help tens of millions of workers across the U.S.

Here are five things to know about the proposed rule — and the dangers it could help mitigate.

Heat takes a deadly toll on workers

Extreme heat kills 1,220 people in the U.S. annually. Workers are among that number: 986 died from heat exposure between 1992 and 2022 — an average of 34 deaths each year.

During that period, the fewest worker deaths were reported in 1992, when 11 workers died from heat, while the most were in 2011, when 61 people were killed on the job.

Many of those who have died were construction workers, with 334 dying during that same period.

An even greater number of people suffer heat-related illnesses each year. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that last year nearly 120,000 people were hospitalized due to extreme heat.

Between 2011 and 2020, there were around 34,000 work-related heat injuries that resulted in people missing work.

Exposure to extreme heat can result in a range of health issues including heat stroke, which causes seizures, loss of consciousness and possibly death, and heat exhaustion, which can cause headaches, dizziness and nausea. Heat exposure can also cause cramps, rashes and fainting.

“Workers all over the country are passing out, suffering heat stroke and dying from heat exposure from just doing their jobs, and something must be done to protect them,” said Douglas Parker, who leads the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The rule’s protections could apply to 36 million workers

The Biden administration has estimated that its rule could apply to 36 million workers. It would extend protections to those who have to exert themselves in high-heat settings.

That includes people who make deliveries, carry mail, work in construction, pick vegetables, fix power lines and landscape.

It would apply to both indoor and outdoor workers who are doing their jobs in temperatures north of 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

The rule would require employers to assess threats and take protective measures

Under the rule, companies with employees vulnerable to extreme heat would have to take initial steps including creating a plan to keep workers safe and hiring a heat safety coordinator.

They would also have to monitor workplaces for high-heat conditions.

In times of high heat, employers would need to provide workers with access to water, a break area, time to take breaks and plans to help new employees acclimate to heat. They would also need to communicate regularly with employees.

Break areas for outdoor workers would be either areas with shade or air-conditioned spaces. For indoor workers, they would be cooler areas, with access to fans, ventilation or air conditioning.

The acclimation plans would comprise allowing new employees either to start off with a lighter workload or to take frequent and monitored breaks.

The rule’s completion likely depends on who wins the election in November

While the Biden administration has proposed the rule, it’s not clear if it will ever actually be completed.

The federal regulatory process can be time consuming, and with only about seven months left in President Biden’s first term, it would be difficult to finalize in that time.

The issue of worker heat standards has been relatively partisan, and it’s not clear whether a Trump administration would pick it up.

Republican leaders of at least two states, Florida and Texas, have passed laws preventing municipalities from establishing their own worker heat standards.

Critics of such measures have said they are burdensome for industry. OSHA estimates that complying with the rule as proposed would cost employers an average of $7.8 billion annually — or $3,085.47 per establishment — over a 10-year period.

Extreme heat is expected to worsen with climate change

As the changing climate heats up the planet, extreme heat is expected to worsen.

Scientists have warned that more global warming will result in more frequent and more intense heat waves. Without actions to mitigate climate change, heat-related deaths around the world could increase by 370 percent, according to a study that was published last year.

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