With record-breaking temperatures continuing nationwide, the Labor Department has issued its first-ever hazard alert for heat and plans to step up enforcement in agriculture and construction, which are considered high-risk industries.

"Federal law requires employers to protect workers against heat," says the alert, issued late Thursday. "Employers have a legal and moral responsibility not to assign work in high heat conditions without protections in place for workers, where they could be literally worked to death. This is true even in Texas, despite its recent law limiting local ordinances on heat illness protections."

"The agency is planning enhanced enforcement actions, with a strategic focus on geographic locations and industries where high heat impacts vulnerable worker populations," the alert says. "This means more inspection activity as well as a broader use of enforcement tools, especially where workers are in clear danger."

President Joe Biden said earlier Thursday that the alert “builds on the national standard” for occupational heat exposure that the Labor Department has in the works. DOL issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking two years ago but has yet to issue proposed regulations for such a standard, raising questions about whether an occupational heat standard will be in place before next summer.

“It is fitting for President Biden to push for protections from the heat in what will likely be the hottest month in recorded history,” said Juley Fulcher, worker health and safety advocate with Public Citizen.

But she also said OSHA “has limited options to hold employers accountable for failing to implement basic safety protocols to protect workers from extreme heat. Only a workplace heat standard will give OSHA the tools to fully protect workers.”

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Michael Marsh, CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, said NCAE sent out reminders to its members in April "to review their Injury and Illness Prevention Programs and start initiating heat illness protocols in order to protect their workers and themselves as temperatures start to rise."

The general duty clause of the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act has been interpreted by the courts to mean “an employer has a legal obligation to provide a workplace free of conditions or activities that either the employer or industry recognizes as hazardous and that cause, or are likely to cause, death or serious physical harm to employees when there is a feasible method to abate the hazard,” OSHA said. “This includes heat-related hazards that are likely to cause death or serious bodily harm.”

June was the hottest month in recorded history, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said July 13. The National Weather Service said Thursday that a “dangerous heat wave [is] to begin in Northeast & Mid-Atlantic on Thursday and continue through [the] weekend” and that “record-breaking heat [will] continue across Southwest and Central U.S.” through the end of the week.

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