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Biden’s government is pushing for new worker protection after dozens of workers were injured and killed in record-breaking temperatures across the country this summer.
The Department of Labor and Health & Safety announced Monday that it would prioritize inspections on hot days, target high-risk industries nationwide and, as reported earlier this summer, begin developing a federal regulation to protect workers from heat-related illnesses, a long-sought move by workers’ representatives .
President Biden issued a joint statement with OSHA calling the initiative “any government action to protect workers, children, seniors and vulnerable communities from extreme heat.”
A study by MediaFrolic and Columbia Journalism Investigations last month found a dramatic increase in preventable worker deaths from high temperatures and that 384 workers in the US died from environmental heat in the past decade.
The fatalities included workers serving vital services across the country: farm workers in California and Nebraska, construction workers and garbage collectors in Texas, and tree trimmers in North Carolina and Virginia. Analysis of data from the MediaFrolic and CJI’s Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that the three-year average of worker heat deaths had doubled since the early 1990s.
Black workers have borne the brunt of the burden: As of 2010, for example, Hispanics have been responsible for a third of all heat deaths, but they make up a fraction – 17% – of the US workforce, MediaFrolic and CJI found. Health and safety experts attribute this uneven burden to the overrepresentation of Hispanics in industries vulnerable to dangerous heat, such as construction and agriculture.
OSHA said in the press release that despite “widespread underreporting, 43 workers died of heat illness and suffered at least 2,410 other serious injuries and illnesses in 2019”.
The Democrats in Congress, who had previously enacted heat standard legislation, applauded Monday’s announcement.
“Without urgent action, the human and financial costs of excessive heat will continue to increase,” said Rep. Robert Scott (D-Va.), Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor.
David Michaels, who headed OSHA during the Obama administration, called the new measures “a big step forward”. Michaels said presidents rarely engage in OSHA standards, suggesting the White House is committed to speeding up a heat standard.
“It’s unusual for this to happen, especially so early in the rulemaking process,” he said.
The Texas Newsroom and The California Newsroom, two public radio collaborations, and Public Health Watch, a nonprofit investigative news organization, helped with the MediaFrolic and CJI investigation.