Attorney General James Takes Action to Protect Workers from Occupational Heat Exposure
As Climate Change Continues to Cause Temperatures to Rise, Workers Face Increased Risk of Injury, Illness, or Death from Extreme Heat
AG James Leads Coalition of 10 Attorneys General Urging OSHA, Congress, and the Biden Administration to Enact an Emergency Extreme Heat Standard Before This Summer
NEW YORK – New York Attorney General Letitia James is leading a coalition of 10 attorneys general to protect workers from the dangers of exposure to extreme heat in the workplace. Today, Attorney General James and the coalition petitioned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to implement a nationwide emergency extreme heat standard to take effect this summer to protect workers from heat exposure. Despite rising temperatures and intensifying heat waves, and the grave dangers they pose to workers, OSHA currently has no occupational heat standard in place. The attorneys general also called on Congress to pass pending legislation directing OSHA to promulgate an interim heat standard while it continues its rulemaking for a permanent standard, and they urged the White House to support these efforts to protect the nation’s most heat-vulnerable workers.
“With each passing summer, workers across the country continue to suffer the potentially deadly results of extreme heat exposure,” said Attorney General James. “Before the summer heat once again sets in, we must protect our most vulnerable workers against the dangers of extreme heat by implementing an emergency extreme heat standard and ultimately set a permanent standard for all workers. Every American has the right to a safe workplace, and I encourage OSHA, Congress, and the White House to join us in ensuring we protect the health and wellbeing of all workers.”
Extreme heat refers to a period of excessively hot weather with above average temperatures, usually combined with high humidity. Climate change is increasing the severity, duration, and frequency of extreme heat events. Extreme heat exposure affects millions of workers across the country and can cause a range of heat-related illnesses, including heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Prolonged, repeated exposure to extreme heat can even cause chronic kidney disease. Extreme heat can also negatively impact preexisting medical conditions, such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and can even worsen psychiatric conditions.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at least 436 workers died from heat exposure from 2011 through 2021. Summer 2023 was the hottest summer ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere, bringing soaring temperatures and unrelenting heatwaves to communities across the United States. As a result, vulnerable workers such as farm and construction workers labored through unprecedented heat and humidity, ultimately resulting in deaths:
- In June 2023, a 46-year-old construction worker died from hyperthermia at an outdoor construction site in East Texas, when the region was experiencing daily high temperatures around 100°F.
- In June 2023, a 66-year-old postal worker who had delivered mail in Dallas, Texas for 35 years died of heat stroke while working in extreme heat conditions.
- In July 2023, a 26-year-old farmworker and father of two died of heat stroke after collapsing in a field near Yuma, Arizona as temperatures soared above 110°F.
- In July 2023, a 29-year-old Guatemalan immigrant died while picking fruit on a farm in Homestead, Florida during an unprecedented heatwave.
- In August 2023, a warehouse worker died while working in part of a distribution center in Memphis, Tennessee that did not have air conditioning.
Summer 2024 is expected to be even hotter than 2023, putting workers at even greater risk of heat-related illness, injury, and death.
In the petition, Attorney General James and the coalition remind OSHA that the agency is legally obligated to set an emergency temporary standard if it finds that workers are exposed to a grave danger in the workplace and an emergency standard is necessary to protect workers from that danger. The potential dangers and impacts of extreme heat on vulnerable workers meet these factors for a range of occupations and are particularly evident for farmworkers and construction workers. Farmworkers are 35 times more likely to die of heat exposure than other members of the general population, and construction workers account for 36 percent of heat-related workplace deaths each year. Based on this evidence, the coalition calls on OSHA to fulfill its legal obligation to workers and issue an emergency temporary standard, including a heat exposure threshold and required preventative measures such as water breaks and shade, for farmworkers and construction workers — at a minimum — by May 1.
In addition, Attorney General James and the coalition are calling on Congress to pass and the White House to sign the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness, Injury, and Fatality Prevention Act (H.R. 4897/S. 2501), legislation that would direct OSHA to establish near- and long-term measures to protect workers from extreme heat. The legislation is named for Asunción Valdivia, a farmworker who died of heatstroke after picking grapes for 10 hours in extreme heat.
Illness, injury, and death from heat exposure disproportionately impact workers of color and low-wage workers who are overrepresented in those occupations most vulnerable to extreme heat, including labor-intensive outdoor work like agriculture and construction. OSHA has previously recognized that certain workers are at an increased risk of occupational heat illness not only because of the nature of their work, but also because of factors such as race, ethnicity, or language.
Joining Attorney General James in petitioning OSHA and sending letters to Congress and the White House are the attorneys general of Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia.
“Due to climate change, New York State temperatures have risen three degrees per decade for the past 45 years. Workers are subjected to higher-than-ever temperatures as they labor in extreme heat,” said Charlene Obernauer, Executive Director at the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH). “In New York City alone, there are an estimated 350 heat-exacerbated deaths annually, caused by heat-worsening existing chronic conditions. OSHA can and must do more to protect our country's workforce — the time to act is now as temperatures continue to increase and show no signs of stopping.”
“In the summer of 2023, 95% of the American public faced local area heat alerts warning residents of deadly heat conditions and cautioning them to protect themselves,” said Juley Fulcher, worker health and safety advocate at Public Citizen. “One hundred million people in the U.S. faced more than 30 days of these dire heat alerts. Despite the warnings, Americans went to work knowing they had no control over the simple, yet critical, protective measures that could prevent heat, illness, injury, or death — plenty of drinking water, breaks in a cool location, reduction in strenuous work during the hottest portions of the day. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a responsibility to ensure workers are given these basic life-saving measures. Public Citizen praises New York Attorney General Letitia James and the coalition of state Attorneys General for petitioning OSHA for an emergency heat standard and for urging Congress to immediately pass the Asuncíon Valdivia Heat Illness, Injury and Fatality Prevention Act (S.2501/H.R.4897).”
“Illnesses and injuries from heat exposure on the job are wholly preventable and a national standard to protect workers is well past due,” said Anastasia Christman, Senior Policy Analyst at the National Employment Law Project. “Systemic bias and occupational segregation result in Black, Latinx, and immigrant workers laboring in jobs that target them for excessive heat exposure, with millions in the nation’s fields, construction sites, warehouses, transportation systems, and other industries risking irreversible injuries with every heat wave. NELP supports the call for an emergency standard to save lives this summer, and the passage of the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness, Injury, and Fatality Prevention Act to bring about a permanent protective standard as quickly as possible.”
“Our nation's agricultural economy is completely dependent upon immigrant workers, as 70% of such workers are foreign-born,” said Craig Livermore, Co-Director at the Midstate Council for Occupational Safety and Health (Midstate COSH). “There are an estimated 100,000 such workers in upstate New York, and Midstate COSH provides training and support to hundreds of such workers yearly in The Finger Lakes and Southern Tier Regions. The actions sought by the New York Attorney General and other State Attorneys General will provide necessary and immediate benefits to the protect some of our most vulnerable workers. Agricultural workers spend up to 12 hours a day working in extreme heat outside or inside poorly ventilated barns and living barracks. As temperatures rise it is essential to pass a standard to protect their health for both humanitarian and economic reasons.”
“It is with grave urgency that we call upon OSHA, Congress, and the Biden administration to put in place an emergency extreme heat standard that protects workers laboring in dangerous outdoor temperatures,” said Ani Halasz, Executive Director at Long Island Jobs with Justice. “Our region cannot thrive without the contributions of agriculture and infrastructure development. We depend on farmworkers to care for our land and construction and utilities workers to maintain our homes and communities. Outdoor temperatures are predicted to be higher this summer than they were last and with no occupational heat standard in place we are essentially sending workers into unsafe working conditions where they could lose their lives.”
This matter is being handled by Assistant Attorney General Ashley M. Gregor, Senior Counsel for Air Pollution and Climate Change Litigation Michael J. Myers, and Environmental Scientist Dr. D Pei Wu 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, Fellow Abigail Ramos, and Civil Enforcement Section Chief Fiona Kaye of the Labor Bureau, which is led by Deputy Bureau Chief Young Lee and Bureau Chief Karen Cacace. Social Justice Coordinator Francisca Montana also assisted in this matter. 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.