The federal government is increasing its oversight of farms and other operations where workers are exposed to extreme heat, launching an enforcement initiative and encouraging employers to provide water, rest, and shade as needed to cope with high temperatures.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said Monday it is stepping up its efforts to protect workers, saying it will be prioritizing “heat-related interventions and inspections of work activities on days when the heat index exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit.”

The agency also said it “will take a significant step toward a federal heat standard ... by issuing an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on heat injury and illness prevention in outdoor and indoor work settings.”

Last month, more than 100 groups including Public Citizen, United Farm Workers, Farmworker Justice, UFW Foundation and the Union of Concerned Scientists, as well as a former head of CalOSHA, petitioned OSHA for an emergency standard on occupational heat, citing, in particular, the risk to farmworkers. Many of the same groups submitted a petition in 2018 “for the first federal standard that would protect outdoor and indoor U.S. workers from occupational exposure to excessive heat.”

UCS Senior Climate Scientist Kristina Dahl said, “It’s great that OSHA is taking action on occupational heat standards. We know the lack of a federal heat standard has been detrimental to outdoor workers for far too long — the proof is in the fact that we still have workers dying on the job every year as a result of extreme heat exposure."

For farmworkers, she said "the combination of extreme heat and toxic pesticide exposure is particularly dangerous and being amplified by climate change. Thus, these protections, which we hope will consider a variety of risk factors, are urgently needed.” 

As the agency moves forward, Dahl said "it will be critical to draw from the extensive scientific data and information already published on how to best protect workers from heat, as well as begin outreach immediately to those directly affected, so that the rulemaking process can be as swift as possible. The average OSHA rule takes about eight years to develop, and workers can't wait that long given the overheated climate they're currently exposed to."

Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, said every NCAE grower-member he has spoken with "already has heat illness prevention protocols established in their Injury, Illness and Prevention Plans so I'm not sure how this will affect them." They may, he said, "have to to tweak those plans for newly regulated temperature determinations depending upon what those may be."

Large parts of the country have experienced heat waves this summer. Temperatures were especially high in the Pacific Northwest, where the mercury in late June hit 116 degrees Fahrenheit in Portland, Oregon, for example.

“Throughout the nation, millions of workers face serious hazards from high temperatures both outdoors and indoors,” Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said in a news release. “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.”

OSHA said the ANPR to be published next month will “gather diverse perspectives and technical expertise on topics including heat stress thresholds, heat acclimatization planning, exposure monitoring, and strategies to protect workers.” Its new enforcement initiative "applies to indoor and outdoor worksites in general industry, construction, agriculture and maritime where potential heat-related hazards exist.”

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OSHA also is working on what it calls a “national emphasis program” on heat hazard cases targeting high-risk industries. That program “will build on the existing Regional Emphasis Program for Heat Illnesses in OSHA’s Region VI, which covers Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

In addition, within OSHA’s National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH), a Heat Illness Prevention Work Group will be formed “to provide better understanding of challenges and to identify and share best practices to protect workers,” OSHA said.

A memo that went from OSHA headquarters to regional OSHA administrators Sept. 1 said according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, five workers in the ag, forestry, fishing and hunting industry died annually from heat exposure between 2011-2019.

BLS also found that from 2011 to 2019, “environmental heat cases resulted in an average of 38 fatalities per year and an average of 2,700 cases with days away from work,” the memo to regional administrators said. In 2019, “despite widespread under-reporting, 43 workers died from heat illness … and at least 2,410 others suffered serious injuries and illnesses,” OSHA said in its release.

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This article was updated to include comments from the Union of Concerned Scientists and National Council of Agricultural Employers.