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Biden administration, workers grapple with health threats posed by climate change and heat
Jul 19, 2021 · 10 min
Surging temperatures across the West Coast this summer are exposing another way that the changing climate threatens the country’s future: the danger it poses to workers, particularly those ...
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Biden administration, workers grapple with health threats posed by climate change and heat

Surging temperatures across the West Coast this summer are exposing another way that the changing climate threatens the country’s future: the danger it poses to workers, particularly those who work outside and in warehouses.

The issue has become such a concern that the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has put a new heat illness rule on a list of agenda items for the Biden administration to consider, calling it a top priority. Right now, there is no specific federal policy that governs heat-related workplace safety, leaving states to set their own approach.

Amid nearly 200 deaths in Washington and Oregon during the recent record-shattering heat wave, which saw temperatures climb as high as 116 degrees, at least two workers died suddenly: a 51-year-old man who collapsed outside an Oregon Walmart distribution center where he worked, and a 38-year-old farmworker who died while working in a field on a 104-degree day near the Willamette Valley.

Those deaths, whose causes are still being investigated, have drawn attention to the risks faced by many workers and to government policies that often have not been tailored to contemporary weather extremes.

“We have to deal with these waves of higher temperatures — sometimes it’s low or high — and also the wildfires now,” said Luis Magaña, coordinator of the farmworker advocacy group Organization of Migrant Workers, based in Stockton, in California’s San Joaquin Valley. “It’s a system of the natural environment running against a system of laws that no longer works.”

Magaña, who worked in the fields for more than 40 years, said that the temperatures, always a consideration for farmworkers in places such as California, have climbed higher in recent years.

“The harvests have changed,” he said. “The temperature, in the last few years, has advanced to be quite severe. And you can feel the force of the sun, it is much stronger.”

After a series of deaths in the fields, California instituted what was then the country’s most stringent protections for farmworkers, in 2005, and has updated those laws since.

But Magaña says workers are still succumbing to the heat: He hears about three to five workers who die prematurely, from such things as strokes or heart attacks, every harvest season. Magaña attributes the stresses of working in high temperatures to these deaths, even if they don’t occur in the physical workplace.

“It’s always the same story — whatever the risk is, whether it’s a heat wave, air quality or covid,” said Elizabeth Strater, a director at United Farm Workers. “All of these things are going to cause more harm disproportionally to the people who are more vulnerable.”

Veronica Mota, 46, has been working in the fields for 20 years, harvesting such produce as blueberries, strawberries, oranges, onions, garlic, almonds and asparagus in the San Joaquin Valley.

The heat is a double-edged sword, she said: Growers shift their schedules earlier to avoid the worst heat of the day, but when it’s too hot, workdays get cut short, reducing paychecks.

Still, she is more concerned about getting heat stroke at work, saying she does not have health insurance.

She says she witnessed a fellow picker last year visibly suffering on a hot day, with what she said she thought were signs of illness from the heat. The co-worker was picked up by an ambulance and recovered.

Oregon this month announced emergency rules mandating that employers provide cool water, adequate shade and rest breaks every two hours when the temperature in work areas, indoors or outdoors, exceeds 90 degrees.

But those rules are temporary, leaving just three states with permanent heat-related rules: Washington, California and Minnesota. And even those are patchy, according to Teni Adewumi-Gunn, a climate change and worker health fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

California, which mandates such protections as providing water, breaks and shade for outdoor workers, has specific provisions for workers in agriculture, construction, landscaping, and oil and gas extraction.

And there is a growing push to establish national heat protection standards.

Legislation introduced in Congress in March would require OSHA to establish similar federal rules to protect workers in extreme heat conditions across the country. The agency is looking at other steps it can take.

“OSHA understands that heat is a growing problem and that workplace exposure to heat is a significant hazard and will become more critical as the impacts of climate change progress over time,” the agency said in a statement. “Climate change isn’t limited to a single job site, industry or geographic area, and the agency is aware of the effects of changing climate and extreme weather patterns on workers.”

OSHA said it is enforcing worker safety violations related to heat issues under its general duty clause, a broad mandate that requires companies to provide safe workplaces.

Marc Freedman, a vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that the organization wouldn’t have an official position on the regulation until it is drafted but that he was skeptical of what it could mean for business owners.

“It’s very difficult to regulate something like heat exposure,” he said. “We can all say there’s a hazard there, but reducing that to a question of a standard and when an employee is going to be in trouble and what that threshold of exposure is going to be for an employer to protect against is very vexing.”

California’s stringent rules do not apply to workers indoors — such as warehouse employees, whose ranks have grown significantly during the pandemic at companies such as Amazon, among others. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post).

The heat has become so obtrusive — even during the overnight shift — at an Amazon warehouse in Southern California that at least one worker has started taking migraine pills to work to stave off the inevitable heat-related headaches.

“This summer has been substantially hotter than the last,” said the worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of losing her job. “You see people trying to cool down by fanning themselves with a piece of cardboard. It hits you as soon as you get on the higher floors.”

Maria Boschetti, a spokeswoman for Amazon, said the company monitors building temperatures and has safety teams on each floor to track heat levels.

“In an unprecedented heat wave like this, we’re glad that we installed climate control in our fulfillment centers many years ago,” she said in a statement. “We’re also making sure that everyone has easy access to water and can take time off if they choose to.”

Sage Vinson worked in a warehouse run by a different company in Boise, Idaho, which does not have a heat standard. Inside temperatures routinely topped 100 degrees during the three summers he spent there.

On multiple occasions, he vomited and nearly passed out from the heat. And on the most sweltering days, the green dye from his beard dripped onto his clothes.

“I’d walk into the bathroom and see people passed out on the floor,” the 29-year-old said. “People would be throwing up or get sent home from work — and management would make sure to shame them by telling everybody they couldn’t handle the heat.”

Employees, he said, had to meet strict packaging quotas, even during heat waves.

Those who complained were told to cool off by the toilet, one of two places in the building with air conditioning. (The other was a management office that remained locked, he said.)

He left the $13-an-hour job in December, and recently moved to Eugene, Ore., where he works at a cannabis packaging facility that has air conditioning. The job is still physically taxing, he said, but is much more manageable without the extreme heat he dealt with at the last warehouse.

“It was a really gross ‘survival of the fittest,’ ” he said. “I would come home and literally sit on top of the vent for an hour because it felt like my body was falling apart, every single day. I couldn’t move.”

The latest heat waves come as the warehouse industry undergoes explosive growth, adding some 100,000 workers a year to keep up with a boom in online shopping. Amazon alone has hired more than 430,000 employees in the past year, expanding its workforce by 51 percent to nearly 1.3 million worldwide.

Since 1992, heat-related complications have killed roughly 900 U.S. workers and sickened tens of thousands, according to federal data. Deaths from the heat rose to an average of about 40 a year between 2015 and 2019, up from about 30 a year the four years prior.

“Heat is not just an inconvenience; it kills people,” said Adewumi-Gunn, adding that researchers believe those figures are likely much higher because of a lack of reporting and inconsistent record-keeping.

Public health experts say the dangers of working in extreme temperatures are often undercounted. In addition to heat stroke, dehydration and exhaustion, long-term exposure to sunlight and heat can lead to skin cancer, eye damage and chronic kidney disease, and exacerbate a number of existing conditions including asthma and diabetes.

A 2018 study of workers in California’s San Joaquin and Imperial valleys by researchers at the University of California at Davis found that workload and pace were also large factors in illnesses when the temperatures were high. The heat and hard work caused 45 percent of the roughly 300 workers to see body temperatures rise over 100.4 degrees or more, for at least three minutes during the course of a day in the study.

The United Farm Workers asked 2,176 farmworkers in Washington recently about the heat, finding that 55 percent had experienced at least one symptom associated with a heat illness while at work. A quarter said they did not have enough cool drinking water and 97 percent said they thought work protections for heat should be improved in the state.

It’s unclear how soon the Biden administration might advance a new policy, and some companies are working on their own measures. Scott Pope, a spokesman for Walmart, which lost the employee in Oregon recently, said the company was “taking preventive measures to help ensure our associates stay healthy and are stressing the importance of heat-related safety in all our facilities.”

“The health and safety of our associates is a critical priority, and the safety policies and protocols we have in place are particularly important in light of record high temperatures across the U.S.,” Pope said.

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