Biden’s heat protection plan: New rules to safeguard US workers from extreme heat

What the long-awaited proposal will mean for the country's employers and how it plans to protect workers from extreme heat
The White House acknowledged that farm workers, firefighters and construction workers are disproportionately impacted by extreme heat.
The White House acknowledged that farm workers, firefighters and construction workers are disproportionately impacted by extreme heat.Photo: iStock

The United States Department of Labor proposed a rule on July 2, 2024, aimed at protecting millions of workers from the significant health risks of extreme heat.

If finalised, the rule would help protect some 36 million workers in both indoor and outdoor settings, substantially reducing heat-related injuries, illnesses and deaths in the workplace.

The White House acknowledged that farm workers, firefighters and construction workers are disproportionately impacted by extreme heat.

The proposed rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would require employers to develop an injury and illness prevention plan to control heat hazards in workplaces affected by excessive heat. This plan would necessitate employers to evaluate heat risks and, when necessary, implement provisions for drinking water, rest breaks and control of indoor heat. Additionally, it would require measures to protect new or returning workers who are unaccustomed to working in high heat conditions.

The rule mandates that employers provide water and cooler areas when temperatures reach 80 degrees Fahrenheit and increase breaks and monitor heat-related illnesses at 90 degrees Fahrenheit. If finalised, OSHA could fine employers who flout the rule.

Extreme heat is the leading weather-related killer in the United States, causing more deaths than floods, hurricanes and tornadoes combined. Millions of workers experience heat stress on the job, with agricultural and construction workers at the highest risk. Indoor workers without adequate cooling, especially in warehouses, factories and restaurants, are also at risk.

Every worker should come home safe and healthy at the end of the day, which is why the Biden-Harris administration is taking this significant step to protect workers from the dangers posed by extreme heat. We are committed to ensuring that those doing difficult work in some of our economy’s most critical sectors are valued and kept safe in the workplace.
Julie Su, acting secretary of Labor

However, the worker protection proposal, which Biden had promised during his first months in office, is being introduced so late in his first term that it is unlikely to be finalised by the end of the year.

OSHA continues to conduct heat-related inspections under its National Emphasis Program (NEP) – Outdoor and Indoor Heat-Related Hazards launched in 2022. This programme includes policies and procedures for implementing NEP to protect employees from heat-related hazards and resulting injuries and illnesses in both outdoor and indoor workplaces.

Several US states run their own OSHA-approved state plans for heat exposure, including California, Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington.

California became the first state in 2006 to establish heat standards for outdoor workers. In June 2024, the state passed standards for indoor workers as well. The Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board approved California Code of Regulations, Title 8, section 3396, Heat illness prevention in indoor places of employment.

The International Labour Organization (ILO), in its April 2024 report Ensuring safety and health at work in a changing climate, stated that more than 70 per cent of all workers worldwide are at risk of exposure to excessive heat, posing significant threats to their safety and health.

Down to Earth (DTE), in June 2024, chronicled the perilous lives of India’s factory workers amid heatwaves in its series 'sweatshops turned sweatboxes'. DTE found that employees face dangerous heat, inadequate ventilation and minimal relief in their struggle to make a living.

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