February 29, 2024

Natalia, a 58-year-old veteran farm worker from Florida, is paid by the hour to work in a greenhouse, subjecting her and co-workers to miserable humid heat that gets worse every summer. She gets two 10-minute and half-hour lunch breaks every day, which was recently moved from wherever she could find a corner to an air-conditioned lunch, a change she says has made a world of difference. No federal laws regulate heat exposure in the workplace, leaving employers free to do whatever they see fit to protect workers; other farms where Natalia worked did not have a bathroom and did not provide drinking water.

Failure to provide such things may soon become illegal. Later this year, a new rule from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, or OSHA, could provide federal protections for heat exposure for the first time and require companies to invest in employee wellness during the hottest parts of the year.

Over the past few months, the agency has held dozens of public meetings and collected more than 1,000 comments, many from workers but also a number from businesses and trade associations concerned about the impact any rule could have on their bottom line. But new research says employers may want to think twice about opposing a heat standard because unprotected workers will produce diminishing returns in an ever-warming world. Meanwhile, labor advocates are trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to push state and local versions of a rule.

Natalia’s testimony was recorded by Jeannie Economos, who coordinates health and safety programs for an organization called the Farmworker Association of Florida. Economos used that interview and numerous others of the Sunshine State’s field, greenhouse and construction workers to advocate for local, state and federal workplace heat standards. An ideal guideline, she said, would at least guarantee adequate access to cold, clean water and “not having to walk a mile out in the fields to get water to drink when you’re hot, not having to wait to a break or you’re about to pass out.”

OSHA considers several components of the proposed standardwhich he plans to publish later this year, an agency official told the Washington Post. (When asked about the timeline, OSHA Grist referred to s posting in the Federal Registerwhich does not specify a timeline.) Mandatory workplace education programs will teach both workers and managers how to recognize and respond to heat illness and take the risks seriously. The rule could also mandate that employers treat heat stress as a medical emergency, and prohibit retaliation against employees who complain or report violations. The measure would almost certainly require employers to provide regular breaks; clean, accessible water; and protective equipment such as hats and cooling jackets. Another possibility is a requirement that employees be allowed to acclimate to intense heat by working only 20 percent of a typical workday during the first day of a heat wave and incrementally increasing their hours each day.

Over the past 15 years, OSHA has received three petitions to implement a federal heat standard. The rulemaking process finally began in 2021, but could stall again if President Biden loses this year’s election. “OSHA has to be balanced and there’s a lot of pressure on OSHA to do something, so we’ll just wait and see,” Economos said. “It can take three to eight years to develop a [final] rule.”

She hoped a state heat standard in Florida could prevent deaths in the meantime. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 387 workers lost their lives to heat illness between 2013 and 2022, and because heat illness is often misdiagnosed as heart failure or stroke, this is almost certainly an undercount. Heat standards at the state level already exist in California, Washington, Minnesota and Oregon, and one has been proposed in Colorado. California’s guideline only protects outdoor workers, but the state is planned to launch rules for indoor workers this year. But right to work states in the South showed more opposition to such ideas. Last year, Texas preempted municipal efforts to regulate heat exposure. In Florida, efforts at a state heat standard have been blocked by Republican lawmakers. Miami-Dade County officials were to consider a measure last fall but pushed it March amid complaints that it was unfair to local businesses.

The federal rulemaking process is complicated and pressured, and OSHA faces tremendous pressure from all sides. Any regulation must cover very diverse conditions of a large labor pool in various sectors, from electricians working in stuffy attics to construction workers putting up houses to farm workers harvesting vegetables in full sun. Meanwhile, an equally bewildering array of business interests largely condemned, and in many cases actively advocated against it, attempts to do something, stating that employers already follow voluntary — and in some cases state-level — heat stress guidance and that further regulation would be difficult. Segments of the construction and agricultural industries, along with chambers of commerce, opposed the standard. “We firmly believe that employers must be responsible or address heat hazards at individual facilities,” representatives of the National Grains Association and the Agricultural Retailers Association wrote in a joint public comment addressed to OSHA.

However, their opposition may be short-sighted. To weather climate change in the long term without serious economic damage, research shows, governments and employers will need to find ways to protect people from the heat. For agricultural workers this is especially essential. A study released last week in the journal Global Change Biology found that heat exposure doesn’t just affect crop yields—it also hurts the productivity of the people who plant and harvest the crops, limiting their ability to work in the field. Already hot and humid Florida will heat up even more by the end of the century, reducing field workers to about 70 percent of their current working capacity if working conditions do not improve.

Gerald Nelson, a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the study’s lead author, said that feeding the world in a new and extreme era of climate crisis means taking care of the people who put food on our table sit.

“At some point it’s going to be too hot,” Nelson said, “and you’re going to have to do some kind of remediation.”

This can mean simple rest breaks and water breaks. It can also mean opportunities to work at night, or to find and invest in crop varieties that thrive in slightly cooler seasons. “The challenge is to figure out a system that is both good today and good tomorrow,” Nelson said.

But in the short term, Economos said a federal heat protection rule is urgent. “While we’re waiting for the federal government,” she said, “people are dying.”

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