Federal workplace safety regulators say they are taking steps toward protecting workers from heat-related illness.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Sept. 24 announced that it will finally establish a federal workplace heat standard. The agency also promised an expansion of heat inspections and enforcement of rules protecting against heat hazards.
Between 2016 and 2020, there were 75 recorded heat-related deaths among North Carolina residents, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Those figures are for all deaths, whether they resulted from people who got ill at work or not.
The number is likely an undercount. A July study found that U.S. safety regulators are significantly undercounting workplace injuries due to hot temperatures. Researchers used California insurance claim data to determine that workplace injuries related to heat stress do not appear in official counts.
Heat stress affects not only employees laboring in the sun, but workers who are indoors as well, researchers found.
An investigation by Politico and E&E News uncovered that federal workplace safety officials have refused to set a workplace heat standard across nine presidential administrations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first recommended OSHA write heat-specific protections in 1975.
They also found that even if OSHA does create such a standard, the agency is deeply unprepared and understaffed to enforce it.
The problem will continue to get worse as climate change fuels rising temperatures across the country, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. They project more days per year when temperature and humidity combine to create a heat index — that’s what the weather really feels like outside.
Data show, for instance, that Raleigh has already experienced 59 days in 2021 in which the high temperature has exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit and many more that have come close to that mark.
Without any action taken to combat climate change, that number is expected to continue to rise significantly in the years ahead.
OHSA said area directors across the country will begin prioritizing inspections of heat-related complaints, referrals and employer-reported illnesses, and initiate onsite investigations where possible.
The directors will also be expected to instruct compliance safety and health officers during their travels to job sites to intervene or begin an inspection when they see workers performing strenuous work in hot conditions, and to expand other inspections based on workplace conditions even when no complaint has been made.
Austin Fisher is a reporter for Source New Mexico, which first published this report.