US Workers Poised to Get Protections From Heat Stress for the First Time

(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden touted measures to better protect communities from extreme weather, including plans to impose the first-ever federal standards to shield US workers from heat stress.

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“Ignoring climate change is deadly and dangerous and irresponsible,” Biden said Tuesday following a briefing on extreme weather at the DC Emergency Operations Center. “These climate-fueled extreme weather events don’t just affect people’s lives. They also cost money, they hurt the economy.”

The US is facing record-high temperatures, as climate change intensifies the risk of extreme heat for America’s workforce.

The Labor Department proposal on heat-stress protections, released Tuesday, could mean more breaks, shade and drinking water for people working at construction sites, steel mills and other facilities. Dangerously high temperatures are the top weather-related killer in the US, and workers are often on the front lines, with thousands sickened from heat exposure.

The president, days after a calamitous debate performance against GOP challenger Donald Trump that led to calls for him to stand aside and allow another candidate to lead the Democratic ticket, jabbed at the former president and Republicans who have voiced skepticism over climate change.

Biden said his predecessor and congressional Republicans are trying to reverse laws he has signed, including the Inflation Reduction Act, that seek to address climate, bolster green energy and make infrastructure more resilient to extreme weather.

“They still deny climate change even exists,” Biden said. “Many of them are trying to repeal those climate provisions and kill those jobs. Quite frankly, I think it’s not only outrageous, it’s really stupid.”

Proposed Rule

Biden said the proposed Labor Department rule would “substantially reduce heat injuries, illnesses, and deaths for over 36 million workers.”

If finalized as written, the plan would also cover workers in places such as Texas and Florida, where state laws have limited such safeguards. A senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to detail the plan before its release, said the government was confident in its authority and would review state laws to ensure they are at least as protective as what the regulation ultimately requires.

“Our hope,” Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su said in an interview, is that “by being clear about the need for workers to be protected from the completely preventable harms of heat illness, we even without a final rule can start to change behavior. Anybody who goes to almost any city right now cannot deny that the heat is not just uncomfortable – it is an occupational hazard.”

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler called the proposed rule “urgently needed” and said the labor coalition had long pushed to codify such protections in federal law.

“Hot and humid conditions have long put indoor and outdoor workers at significant risk of heat-related illness and injury—with workers of color and immigrant workers facing disproportionate risks in many states,” Shuler said in a statement.

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Still, a final measure could be a year or more away, and the effort by the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration falls short of the comprehensive approach to extreme heat some worker advocates have demanded. The standards have been under development since 2021, and the proposal will be subject to public comment and further agency review before it can be finalized.

Industry Pushback

It isn’t clear whether the initiative would continue to advance if Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, wins a second term in November. Some business interests and industry groups have been critical of new workplace standards and have successfully thwarted some state efforts to step up safeguards.

The proposed rule generally would trigger requirements when workers are or can be expected to be exposed to a heat index of 80F (27C) or higher.

Under the plan, workers being exposed to those temperatures would have to be provided access to drinking water and a break area to cool down as well as rest breaks when needed. Employers also would be compelled to implement acclimatization plans for new or returning employees who haven’t yet adjusted to the heat, such as with gradual increases in workload or 15-minute rest breaks every two hours.

That kind of phase-in is essential to protecting human health, advocates say, since three out of four workers who die while working due to heat-related illness do so on their first week on the job.

The proposed regulation also would force affected businesses to establish heat injury and illness prevention plans, develop procedures for responding to heat illnesses and work with employees to step up their monitoring of heat exposure to determine if there are elevated risks, whether indoors or out.

--With assistance from Josh Eidelson and Hadriana Lowenkron.

(Updates with Biden remarks, additional details throughout)

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