When Maria Pineda, who goes by Letty, arrived in Florida from El Salvador in 1994, she wasn’t documented and didn’t speak the language, so she didn’t have many employment options. She started working in agriculture, harvesting ferns to be sold to florists. She was paid by the piece, not by the hour. She needed the money. “No trabajas, no comes,” she said: You don’t work, you don’t eat. She made just enough to cover rent and her necessities.
Pineda grew up in hot climates, but working 11-hour days, five or six days a week, in Florida summers was something else entirely. In the field, ferns are grown under dark, dense cloth that traps hot air, and in the greenhouse temperatures could be 10 to 20 degrees warmer. She was also working with pesticides, although no one told her what they were, that weakened her health and made her even more susceptible to heat. There was no bathroom or water close by, so she tried not to drink much in order to avoid the 15 minutes it took to walk to and from the bathroom, time she wouldn’t be paid for. She got a few 10-minute breaks but “no duraba mucho,” she said: They don’t last long. And sometimes she and her fellow workers were denied breaks entirely, told by supervisors that they weren’t legally obligated to give them.
Eventually, Pineda started going to the doctor often, every six months, to try to address the headaches and muscle pains she was having, not realizing she was experiencing symptoms of dehydration and heat stress. At work she felt dizzy and would get a burning sensation in her kidneys. She couldn’t sleep at night. She developed dark blotches on her face. She was always exhausted, which meant she struggled to function at home with her family, not just at work. She would take a bath when she got home but emerge still sweating, her body still hot. “El cuerpo siempre duele,” she said: Her body always hurt.
After two decades, Pineda quit and now works in the laundry room at a hospital. It’s hot, but “el sol es diferente,” she said: The sun is different. Yet she hasn’t left the experience of the fields behind her. She still has breathing problems, and while her pain has diminished, it’s not entirely gone. Sometimes when she’s out in the sun, she starts to panic, remembering what the heat did to her body.
The things that could have protected Pineda aren’t complicated. Farmworkers like her try to protect themselves by wearing the right clothing and bringing their own water, but what they really need to stay safe lies in the hands of their employers: more water than they can carry, access to shady areas, and payment when they take breaks to cool down.
Farmworkers’ exclusion from labor law that means they often don’t make minimum wage or overtime, or receive benefits like health insurance. Many are undocumented. “Workers know when something is wrong,” said Iris Figueroa, director of economic and environmental justice at Farmworker Justice. But they can’t risk their employment by complaining. And, as it stands, there are no formal rules requiring employers to protect employees like farmworkers from dangerous temperatures outside of a few states; Florida isn’t one of them. “When there aren’t any basic, minimal requirements, what we find is many employers just don’t have anything in place,” Figueroa said. “And workers suffer for it.”
That all may be about to change. In September, as part of a new government-wide initiative to protect Americans from extreme heat, the Biden administration announced that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has begun working on a new standard dictating how all American employers must protect their workers from dangerous heat. “Workers rely on OSHA to protect them. It’s all they have,” said Debbie Berkowitz, who worked at OSHA from 2009 to 2015. “That’s why you need a standard.”
Extreme heat is an issue that’s become hard to ignore as climate change brings hotter and hotter weather. Temperatures have steadily risen since the 1980s, and last year was the second-hottest on record. That means workers in both outdoor settings like agriculture and construction, as well as those indoors who don’t have ways to get cool, are at greater and greater risk of heat illness and even death.
At least 359 workers died from heat between 2000 and 2010, and 43 people died from heat exposure in 2019—although it’s something that often goes undetected or reported. Heat causes about 20,000 workplace injuries a year in both outdoor and indoor settings. Without action to reduce global emissions, the number of outdoor workers alone exposed to days with a heat index above 100 degrees will triple or quadruple by the middle of the century. The harms aren’t just from the direct effects of heat, such as heat stroke, but also from injuries sustained thanks to dizziness or even sweaty, slippery hands. The severity of heat illness can progress rapidly, from sweating and patchy skin to disorientation and even coma, convulsion, and death. “The body temperature can really rise very quickly,” Figueroa said.
Advocates are excited to see that OSHA has already taken the first step in the process of creating a standard to protect workers from these hazards by posting an advance notice of proposed rulemaking, showing that it’s a high priority for the administration. It’s also critical, they say, that OSHA will be developing a standard for not just for outdoor work but indoor settings too.
During a weeklong heat wave in mid-June, Leticia Reyes and her coworkers at a Jack in the Box in Sacramento, Calif., had had enough. The air-conditioning in the store was broken and the air got boiling hot, reaching 107 and 109 degrees on back-to-back days, according to a complaint they later filed with CalOSHA. Cooking over a hot grill only doubled the effect. Some of her coworkers complained of headaches and nausea. “No puedes respirar,” she said: You can’t breathe. Reyes would start to get light-headed and dizzy, like she was going to faint.
Worse, the store only had two people working at a time because of the pandemic, so she and her coworkers weren’t able to take any breaks to recuperate from the temperatures, instead working eight hours straight. They tried to bring in their own handheld fans, but it did little to help. When they told their manager that it was too hot, the response was that they were just experiencing menopause, Reyes said. The manager would say she was going to fix the air-conditioning but after a few days of relief it would break again. (Jack in the Box did not respond to a request for comment.)
So Reyes and her coworkers staged a strike, shutting down the store completely. “Estabamos completamente cansados,” she said: They were completely exhausted. After the strike, the franchise owners finally fixed the air-conditioning. They also gave Reyes and her coworkers raises and ensured they can take breaks. Although at first they were scared—Reyes supports her family with her wages and couldn’t afford to get fired or even have her hours reduced in retaliation—in the end, “Por mi fue maravillosa,” she said: For her, the strike was marvelous.
Reyes wants a workplace heat standard to protect not just fast food workers like her but workers in all industries, “so they don’t have to go through what we did,” she said through an interpreter. “It sucks that we have to go on strike to be heard.”
The basics of what a standard should include are relatively straightforward, all advocates agreed: requirements for adequate rest, shade, and water. While there are differences between indoor and outdoor work, the effects on the body are generally the same—the difference comes in what counts as an adequate solution. Instead of shade, indoor workers need access to a cool location. OSHA will need to lay out some edicts as to how often all workers will need breaks depending on the heat, perhaps borrowing from a work/rest matrix developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health that dictates, for example, 15 minutes of rest for every 45 minutes of heavy work in 95 degree heat.
Heat also affects different bodies differently, which means that employers need to be willing to allow breaks and accommodations beyond the minimum standard. That’s where training for workers on the signs of heat illness comes into play, as well as requiring employers to let them take breaks when they are feeling the effects. “Training is so, so vital,” said MK Fletcher, safety and health director at the AFL-CIO. “You can’t measure someone’s individual heat stress like you can measure their exposure to a chemical.” That means workers and supervisors need to be able to recognize the early signs of heat illness in themselves and their coworkers. And workers who are not paid a salary, or even hourly, will need protections so they can take breaks without financial penalty.
Workers also need to go through an acclimatization process when they’re new to heavy labor in hot conditions to allow their bodies to adjust. Between 50 and 70 percent of deaths from outdoor heat happen in the first few days. That process can include lighter workloads and more breaks for the first few days or weeks of a job.
The details the agency will have to grapple with are thresholds for action. Will OSHA institute a temperature threshold of, say, 88 degrees or 92 degrees? Will it base it on humidity levels as well, or the Wetbulb Globe Temperature (WBGT), which measures not just temperature and humidity but also wind speed, sun angle, and cloud cover? More complex measurements could require employers to buy more complex devices to measure the impact of hot weather. Employers may also need to take into account things like radiant heat coming off, say, a hot grill, as well as whether workers are wearing protective equipment like gloves and boots that makes the heat more intense.
Occupational safety advocates say that, despite the complexity, there is plenty of science to guide OSHA’s rulemaking. NIOSH first recommended that OSHA develop a heat standard nearly a half-century ago. The agency has updated its document several times to reflect scientific advances—offering a rich information source as OSHA does its work.
States have also taken some action that could guide OSHA’s work. When temperatures reach 80 degrees or above in California, outdoor employers are required to provide training, water, and shade. Minnesota requires indoor employers to provide airflow when the WBGT reaches a certain threshold. This past summer, in the middle of intense heat waves that killed at least two workers, Oregon and Washington instituted temporary standards for training, water, and cooling breaks.
“It’s not rocket science,” Berkowitz said. “It’s pretty clear what you need to do to protect workers.”
Oscar Torres immigrated to Dallas, Tex., from Mexico in 2016 and started working in factories, but when he realized there was more money in construction, he switched. He’s noticed that immigrants like him often don’t get the protection they’re owed, down to not being provided gloves. So when it’s hot out, he and his coworkers are still forced to work a full shift straight without breaks. No water is provided at the work site; they have to bring their own.
And yet each summer the heat gets worse and worse. Some days the temperatures reach 100 degrees. He tries to wear protective clothing and drink a lot of water, but during an eight-hour shift that starts at 6 in the morning, the heat still starts to hit hard by around 1. His lighter-skinned coworkers end up bright red. When he gets home from work, he immediately changes clothes and takes a shower to try to recuperate, he said in Spanish through an interpreter, but “your body is just exhausted.” .
All he and his coworkers really need, he said, is the ability to take breaks, especially in the peak of the heat. But employers don’t allow that, despite a local ordinance in Dallas that requires a 10-minute water break for every four hours of work. Many workers don’t know about it, and many of Torres’s bosses haven’t followed it. “The bottom line is it’s all about that money,” he said. “There’s no consideration for workers.”
Texas is a good example of the collision of climate change and lax workplace enforcement. Summers are getting scorchingly hot, but “we have a very, very weak state-level protective infrastructure,” said Emily Timm, co–executive director of the Worker Defense Project. Nearly 60 percent of construction workers in the state say their employers don’t provide water, while nearly 40 percent said they get no rest breaks other than lunch. When her organization surveyed them, “everyone knew someone who had passed out on the job,” Timm said. At 585 workplace deaths between 2007 and 2011, the state has the most dangerous construction industry.
“There’s no climate change debate when you’re a construction worker working outside in Texas,” Timm said. “Workers understand they’re on the front lines of climate change.”
In the absence of a standard, OSHA has been relying on the general duty clause, which requires employers to provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” But the bar to punish an employer under that rule is high, and OSHA has struggled to deploy it to protect workers from heat. Last year, an administrative law judge threw out five citations OSHA had issued against the US Postal Service for failing to protect letter carriers from heat.
The general duty clause “has been absolutely ineffective,” said David Michaels, a public health professor at the George Washington University, who was in charge of OSHA from 2009 to 2017. And it only allows OSHA to cite employers after tragedies have occurred, which means workers don’t have an affirmative right to protection. “There’s no way OSHA could be preventative,” Berkowitz said.
Pressure was applied on the Obama administration to issue a standard, including a petition spearheaded by Public Citizen demanding one. But OSHA never started working on it. The agency was already working on rules limiting exposure to silica dust and beryllium, and, say Michaels and Jordan Barab, who served as the number-two official at OSHA under President Obama, just didn’t have the resources or capacity to take it on. “We just didn’t have the bandwidth,” Michaels said. OSHA “can only work on a certain small number of regulations at one time,” said Barab.
But climate change has forced the issue front and center. “It’s become clear, especially in the ensuing years and the last decade, that a standard is really needed,” Barab said.
Zoe Hoffeld started working for a PetSmart in Cambridge, Mass., four years ago, thinking that grooming animals could be a career path. They enjoyed getting to know the dogs and their owners. “But it was also at times really hard,” they said. One of the biggest challenges was heat. Although the company has a policy stating that the grooming salon should never be below 65 degrees or above 80—and if it went outside of that range, the store was supposed to shut down and send dogs home—the air-conditioning malfunctioned this past summer and there were a number of days when the temperature was hitting 80 and above. The store stayed open. Hoffeld’s manager put in a work order to fix the AC, but it never got fully fixed. Some box fans were set up around the salon, but they just blew hot air around.
With the humidity from the warm water used to bathe the dogs, “it starts to feel a little bit like a sauna,” they said. “It kind of felt like we were melting.” They and their coworkers monitored the dogs for signs of excessive heat, but it was “mentally taxing” to work in such conditions, especially while caring for someone else’s pet.
It was one of the reasons Hoffeld decided to leave the company, along with other lax safety measures that risked the welfare of employees and pets alike. “I decided I didn’t need to be killing myself for a job that barely paid,” they said.
A PetSmart spokesperson acknowledged that Hoffeld’s store experienced temperatures “slightly above 80 degrees due to air-conditioning issues but didn’t shut down. “[T]he store team immediately took steps to lower the temperature below 80 degrees, including bringing in fans and ordering spot coolers while longer-term repairs to the air-conditioner were in motion,” she said. “The health and well-being of our teams, customers and pets is always our top priority.”
“If there was a different party to enforce the policies,” such as OSHA, “that would have definitely been helpful,” Hoffeld said. “Maybe something would have been done to fix the problem.”
New OSHA standards can take multiple decades to see the light of day. It took OSHA 19 years to finalize its silica rule, in part because it was frozen in place during eight years of President George W. Bush. In that time, 12,198 workers died from silica dust exposure, according to the AFL-CIO. Even with a friendly administration there are many steps OSHA is mandated to take, from allowing the public to comment to studying the technological and economic impacts. Small businesses have to have their own chance to weigh in. The agency has to hold public hearings. At a minimum it usually takes over four years.
And big business typically lobbies hard against new rules in an attempt to slow down or block them; the Chamber of Commerce has already tried to cast doubt on whether a heat standard makes sense. “This is not as simple as a chemical exposure in the workplace where there is a consensus around how much is bad and you can prevent that,” Mark Freedman, vice president for workplace policy, said in August. “Defining a heat hazard can be subjective.” After Biden’s announcement, he said a new rule will face “unique difficulties.”
“This is going to be a really difficult task for an agency that’s been chronically understaffed, under-resourced, and, I would say, outgunned by powerful private interests who have the money and the time to fight regulatory initiatives from OSHA,” said Kathleen Rest, executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists. The agency “is going to need some creativity and flexibility to see if they can expedite the process in some way, and then they’re going to need a spine of steel because they’re going to get an enormous amount of pushback.”
Yet there is fierce urgency to get it out fast. “We really need them going great guns,” Rest said. “With climate change and the increased heat, there’s just no time to waste.”
There are ways OSHA can leapfrog over some of the hurdles, such as by going through the public hearing process simultaneously as it develops its proposal and sending the results of both to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which signs off on new regulations, at the same time, potentially saving months or even years. The administration quickly issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking, an early step, and advocates hope it won’t wait long to take the next necessary steps.
But Barab argues that it will take people outside of OSHA, like the president and Congress, to adjust the requirements that bog the agency down. Presidents have in particular issued a number of executive orders over the years that added new steps. “OSHA and the White House need to work together to really restructure the rulemaking process to make it a lot faster and a lot more efficient than it is now,” Barab said. Congress could also give OSHA more resources and even pass legislation, such a bill that would require a heat standard to be finalized within three and a half years, that allows OSHA to skip parts of the current process to meet a hard deadline.
In the meantime, states can follow the lead of California, Oregon, and Washington and take action on their own. “It takes so long for federal OSHA to finally issue a standard that if they really wanted to stop the deaths and reduce injuries, they need to move forward,” Berkowitz said.
Of course, once the standard is on the books it doesn’t mean change will take place immediately. OSHA has long been severely understaffed and the number of inspectors dropped to 862, the lowest number ever recorded, by the end of 2019.
But employers are likely to start making changes on their own anyway, without a visit from an OSHA inspector, simply knowing that the legal requirements have changed. “Most OSHA standards get opposition from the business community,” Michaels said. “But once a standard is issued, they get used to it and they realize they’re able to meet it.”
“In the absence of a standard,” he added, “we’ll see thousands of workers killed every year by heat.”