Agricultural laborer Sebastian Francisco Perez lost his life on the first day of the Pacific Northwest’s 2021 heat wave after succumbing to heat stroke while moving irrigation lines at a tree farm in Oregon. It was the day after his 38th birthday.
Oregon, known for its temperate summers, was rocked with temperatures of up to 116 degrees in June, and Washington state suffered similarly catastrophic heat levels. Early tallies show that the heat wave killed an estimated 200 people in just these two states. And that’s just the Pacific Northwest. Across the West and Southwest, over 31 million people, about 1 in10 Americans, spent much of July under an excessive heat warning or heat advisory.
When workers are forced to labor in this kind of deadly heat without basic protections, it’s no wonder that tragedies like Perez’s death would result. Sadly, these occupational heat fatalities are far from rare. And in addition to the acute risks, chronic exposure to extreme heat can damage your kidneys, heart and brain. Moreover, the early symptoms of heat illness — such as impaired balance, decreased dexterity, slower response time, muscle fatigue and impaired cognition — cause more accidents on the job, some of them deadly.
From 1992 through 2019, exposure to excessive environmental heat killed more than 900 U.S. workers and caused serious heat illness in nearly 80,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These numbers are likely an underestimate due to underreporting, which is highly prevalent in sectors employing the vulnerable and often undocumented workers who experience the highest rates of heat illness.
What makes these heat-related fatalities, illnesses and injuries so deeply infuriating is that they are so preventable. The solutions are simple. Water, rest, shade and acclimatization periods for workers can make all the difference, yet most employers do not provide these basic protections. If businesses can’t be trusted to protect their employees, government rules are necessary to safeguard worker health. However, when it comes to extreme heat, the federal government has failed to act.
For decades, advocates have been pushing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue a federal occupational heat standard. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which provides research-based evidence to support OSHA’s regulatory mission, issued its first recommendation to OSHA for a heat-exposure standard in 1972 and laid out all the evidence demonstrating the problem and prescribed solutions in a clear blueprint for an OSHA rule. The recommendations were updated and reissued in 1986 and again in 2016.
OSHA has been petitioned on this issue on multiple occasions, most recently in 2018. Public Citizen and more than 130 labor, health, climate and environmental organizations representing millions of people, alongside two former OSHA directors, formally requested that OSHA write rules to prevent more needless heat-related deaths. And in March, U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, reintroduced the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act — named after a California farmworker whose death from heat stroke mirrors that of Perez’s — which directs OSHA to issue a heat standard.
OSHA’s failure to write a federal occupational heat standard has left states scrambling to protect workers. In the wake of the deadly heat wave that blasted the Pacific Northwest in June, Oregon and Washington, which have their own state-level OSHA-like agencies, have had to issue emergency state-level standards to prevent heat-related fatalities and illnesses among workers. But with new research finding that 37% of heat-related deaths are linked to climate change, it is clear this crisis is only going to get worse.
As heat waves blanket the country, states that have never had to deal with extreme heat will increasingly face the kind of blistering temperatures that took hundreds of lives in Oregon and Washington. Most of these states are simply not prepared for such catastrophic heat and working people will suffer — and die — as a result.
While the Biden administration has signaled its intent to examine this issue, we do not have time to wait the many years that the agency typically takes to write a rule. OSHA must not let another scorching summer go by without instituting the federal heat stress protections that working people so desperately need.