Long-Term Trading and Investing


Interview: How to Protect Workers from the Heat

Protecting workers from the heat: Juley Fulcher of Public Citizen on OSHA’s new rule

LINK: https://bit.ly/4f8hTHH

Not a day goes by this summer that we don’t hear about a heat-related death, often from children left in hot cars or unprepared hikers taking walks in 100-plus degree weather. Along with these unfortunate tragedies, many outdoor employees are required to work outside during heat waves — without permission to take water or rest breaks. 

Even many inside workers get sick when an over-heated air conditioner breaks or is unable to cool an entire building. 

The Biden administration recently proposed a first-ever federal regulation to protect workers from extreme heat conditions. Although this climate-related rule, covering an estimated 35 million workers, won’t be finalized until 2026, it is designed to reduce the number of deaths, illnesses and injuries suffered by outdoor and indoor workers. 

Equities.com had the privilege of speaking to Juley Fulcher about this rule. She is a health and safety advocate for Public Citizen, a consumer and worker protection advocacy organization with over half a million members throughout the country. 

Equities.com: What is the goal of this worker-protection federal regulation? 

Juley Fulcher: The idea behind this rule is to have simple protocols and procedures put in place that can protect workers and help keep them safe from any heat illness or injury. It is designed to protect workers from heat stress, which has a dramatic impact on the body, including heat exhaustion, fainting, heat stroke, cardiac arrest and kidney disease. When heat stress isn’t kept in check, it can quickly lead to fatalities. 

EQ: Is this really the ‘first-ever’ heat protection regulation issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)? 

JF: Yes. A heat protection rule was first recommended 50 years ago by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but there have never been efforts to develop it until now.  

EQ: Why has the need for a heat-protection regulation been ignored for 50 years? 

JF: Unfortunately, OSHA is a very small regulatory agency. Though it was created by Congress, OSHA doesn’t have the personnel to work on developing more than one or two rules at a time. It usually takes seven or eight years from start to finish to put a rule in place. Public Citizen initially petitioned OSHA for a heat stress standard in 2011. At the time, it was turned down because they had other priorities. We, along with 100 other organizations, petitioned OSHA again in 2018. The petition was granted in 2021 and OSHA began the long process of developing the rule. 

EQ: Is there anyone against these worker protection rules? 

JF: There are industry groups that argue against any worker standard, claiming it will cost them money. In reality, that’s not the case. It will actually save money for employers. In addition to the costs of absenteeism, turnover, accident damage and increased workers compensation insurance costs, heat stress can greatly reduce worker productivity. Right now, the U.S. economy is losing nearly $100 billion a year because of the failure to put simple protections in place for workers. 

EQ: What companies have heat-related policies? 

JF: We found that many smaller businesses have protected their workers and put in policies with help from experts on the effects of heat on workers. These companies have stepped up to the plate, such as putting in fans or portable air conditioning units to help workers, giving them plenty of water and cool-down breaks, and responding quickly when workers show signs of heat illness. However, it’s been harder to get some larger corporations to put in place adequate protocols, especially farm worker and construction employers. That’s why we’re so happy with this new proposed rule. We think it will save lives. 

EQ: Is there any political pressure against protecting workers? 

JF: The main political opposition comes from a general anti-regulation mindset that often springs from conservative principles incorporating the mantra that less regulation is necessary for business growth. That mindset is about blocking all regulations with little regard for worker or consumer protection. We’ve seen that in a couple of states such as Florida and Texas. 

EQ: What do you think of Texas and Florida blocking water and rest breaks? 

JF: It’s monstrous. Florida specifically banned localities from creating standards that protect workers from heat stress. They went even further to say exactly what could not be required of employers. For example, in Miami-Dade County, employers cannot be required to provide rest breaks, or water, or any form of onsite first aid, or an emergency response plan. The Florida legislation says that even the state government is not allowed to create heat rules for the next two years. The bill passed by the Texas legislature says that only the state government can create regulations for employers, but not the local governments. The Texas legislation is broader than the Florida legislation, covering a lot more than just workplace heat protections, but it did specifically state that employers could not be required to provide rest breaks.

EQ: Besides the farming and construction industry, are there other groups against worker protection? 

JF: One of the biggest players opposing workplace rules is the Chamber of Commerce. They played a big role in lobbying the Florida legislature and governor, as well as pushing really hard against the heat rule at the federal level. 

EQ: Is this new heat-related rule going to be law? 

JF: This proposed rule is the first time we’ve seen something written on paper from OSHA. Now they have to go through a review process that includes public comment and hearings, which is an OSHA requirement. We are happy with the proposed rule as it is written. There are still a couple more years to go before it becomes a final rule. Also, remember if the administration changes, they could be antagonistic to any workplace protection standards, or even shelve or postpone this new heat rule. For now, however, we’re thrilled that something is being done. 

EQ: Is there anything that individuals can do to help?

JF: It’s important for people to be educated on these issues. It impacts people who are at work and just doing their job. It also helps to educate employers about heat stress and what it can do to the body. 

EQ: What else should people know? 

JF: We’ve seen dramatic increases in global annual temperatures, and extraordinary heat waves, which are getting longer and hotter and occurring more often. Many people don’t realize that a heat wave is measured not by how hot it gets during the day, but how hot it remains at night. If you’re working all day in the heat, at night you need a cool place to rest. Many workers don’t have adequate air conditioning at home, or don’t run the AC because of the high cost. That means they are unable to fully recover overnight in order to handle the extreme heat the next day. 

EQ: Any final thoughts? 

JF: While this new rule won’t take place until 2026 or even later, many workers will suffer, die and experience chronic kidney injuries. Many people don’t know that farm workers experience heat fatalities at 35 times the rate of any other kind of work. We’ve been working very hard to try to get Congress to pass legislation that will allow OSHA to put an interim heat standard in place until the rule is passed — the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness, Injury and Fatality Prevention Act. We hope that Congress will do something until the heat-stress rule is finalized.

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