Attorney General James Leads Coalition in Calling for Federal Heat Standards for Workers
As Climate Change Brings Higher Temperatures, Workers Face Growing
Risk of Injury, Illness, and Death from Occupational Heat Exposure
NEW YORK – New York Attorney General Letitia James, leading a coalition of six states urged the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to take swift action to implement national standards to protect outdoor and indoor workers from occupational exposure to extreme heat. Despite rising temperatures and intensifying heat waves related to climate change, OSHA currently has no occupational heat standards in place. In comments submitted to a proposed rulemaking on worker heat standards, the coalition called on OSHA to fill this substantial void in worker protections by requiring employers to implement strong preventative measures aimed at curbing heat-related risks.
“Workers throughout the country are on the frontlines of the biggest crises happening today, and must face increasingly unsafe and often deadly working conditions as a result,” said Attorney General James. “As extreme heat events only get more severe and more frequent, it is long past time for OSHA to set strict, enforceable national standards that respond to the grave consequences of escalating heat in the workplace. Every worker deserves a safe work environment, and my office will continue the fight to prioritize the health and wellbeing of working New Yorkers.”
Exposure to extreme heat can cause a range of heat-related illnesses, including heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and, with repeated exposure, chronic kidney disease. Extreme heat also aggravates preexisting medical conditions, such as respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, and can even worsen psychiatric conditions. As climate change yields increasingly higher temperatures and humidity, heat-related injury, illness, and death are expected to grow. Low-income communities, communities of color, and Tribal and indigenous communities are already disproportionately impacted by extreme heat, elevating environmental justice, and environmental racism concerns in the workplace.
OSHA acknowledges that its existing efforts in addressing occupational heat exposure have proven inadequate for protecting workers. A few states have taken steps to protect workers from heat exposure, demonstrating that such measures are feasible and effective. However, without national standards, millions of workers across the country remain vulnerable to hazardous heat in the workplace. In their comments, the coalition argues that as climate change progresses and heat-related injury, illness, and death are becoming increasingly common in the workplace, it is incumbent upon OSHA to establish national standards and requirements to protect all workers.
Specifically, the coalition urges OSHA to implement a rulemaking to establish national occupational heat standards that incorporate elements such as:
- Heat exposure time-limits for outdoor and indoor workers that factor in more frequent and intense extreme heat events associated with climate change;
- Requirements for employers to implement measures to prevent workers’ heat exposures from exceeding these time-limits, such as acclimatization plans, mandatory hydration and rest breaks in shaded or cool areas, personal protective equipment, heat alert plans, worker training, and monitoring;
- Requirements for employers to keep detailed records of heat-related illnesses and report all incidents of heat illness to OSHA, supplemented by more regular OSHA workplace inspections; and
- Requirements for employers to develop enhanced monitoring and exposure protocols for workers who may be particularly susceptible to heat-related injuries, and institute whistleblower protection programs for employees to safely report concerns about working in extreme heat.
The coalition’s analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the total number of U.S. workers employed in occupations vulnerable to extreme heat in 2021 was approximately 50.3 million. Roughly 22.6 million — or 45 percent — of these workers were people of color, and are predominately in the agriculture, construction, warehousing and transportation, delivery and postal services, and food services industries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that from 1992 through 2016, exposure to excessive heat killed 783 U.S. workers and seriously injured 69,374. However, OSHA acknowledges that the official number of injuries, illnesses, and deaths from occupational heat exposure is likely significantly undercounted, especially for workers in the so-called “gig” economy (such as temporary workers) and for undocumented, migrant, or low-wage workers, who are often at the greatest risk of heat-related illnesses.
Joining Attorney General James in submitting the comments are the attorneys general of California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
“The need for regulations to protect workers from extreme heat is not debatable,” said Amy K. Liebman, director of occupational and environmental health, Migrant Clinicians Network. “Farmworkers are particularly vulnerable and 20 times more likely to die from heat exposure than other workers. For too long these workers, deemed essential, have been excluded from vital protections. Voluntary guidelines left up to the good will of employers have not worked systematically. An OSHA standard is long overdue.”
“Deliveristas across New York City work day and night under extreme weather — hurricane, storm, heat waves, and snow storms,” said Hildalyn Colon Hernandez, director of policy & strategic partnerships, Los Deliveristas Unidos. “Simple, their offices are the streets and the weather. They endure these extreme conditions to fulfill their duty of delivering food and goods to millions of people and sustain small business. Over the past years, Deliveristas have witnessed how climate change have made these conditions worsen every day. Los Deliveristas Unidos joined the call of our New York Attorney General Letitia James to urge the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to implement national standards to protect outdoor and indoor workers from occupational exposure to extreme heat.”
This matter is being handled for Attorney General James by Special Assistant Attorney General Ashley Gregor and Senior Counsel for Air Pollution and Climate Change Litigation Michael J. Myers of the Environmental Protection Bureau, which is led by Bureau Chief Lemuel M. Srolovic. This matter is also being handled by Assistant Attorney General Lawrence J. Reina, and Civil Enforcement Section Chief Fiona Kaye, of the Labor Bureau, which is led by Bureau Chief Karen Cacace. The Environmental Protection Bureau and Labor Bureau are part of the Division for Social Justice, which is led by Chief Deputy Attorney General Meghan Faux and overseen by First Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy.