July 13, 2024

In the summer of 2011, Victor Ramirez was working in a Walmart warehouse in Mira Loma, California, when he suddenly fainted. When he came to, he was lying on the floor, confused about what had just happened, his head aching terribly. Although he received no medical attention – his boss only told him to go home if he didn’t feel well enough to continue working – he knew that this sudden bout of unconsciousness must have been caused by the relentless heat in the warehouse.

“If it’s hot outside, it feels even hotter inside the warehouses, because of all the machinery,” Ramirez told Grist in Spanish. “If it’s like 110 outside, then it’s another 10 degrees inside.” The heat was exacerbated by a lack of water and poor air circulation inside the warehouse.

Later that summer, he felt similar symptoms again. He was flushed, sweating profusely and his head hurt. This time, he knew these were signs of heat stress and told a supervisor, who asked Ramirez why he was “acting stupid” and questioned why he wasn’t working faster. In both cases, no one offered first aid or even recommended that he see a doctor. (Walmart declined to comment on Ramirez’s experience, saying the site is operated by a third party, Schneider Logistics. A spokesperson for Schneider Logistics did not respond to Grist’s request for comment.)

“I’m nervous for myself and my daughter,” said Ramirez, whose family relies on his wages to pay their bills. He now works at another warehouse, but the 55-year-old constantly worries that something could happen to him due to dangerous heat exposure at work. Inadequate access to water, limited air conditioning and cavalier attitudes about heat exposure are common in his industry. Ramirez’s fear is rekindled every year when temperatures start to rise and summer rolls around.

Ramirez has good reason to be concerned. Extreme heat is the deadliest extreme weather eventwith a threat level increasing due to climate change. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that dozens of workers die each year from heat exposure at the workplacewith a total of 436 deaths between 2011 and 2021, although federal officials noted that widely recognized as an undercount. But no national regulation exists to protect workers indoors or outdoors from heat — a fact that has prompted Ramirez to fight for protections in Southern California, and others to advocate for stronger protections across the country.

“Pay attention to the workers,” Ramirez said. “We are what matters.”

Starting this month, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, is one step closer to creating America’s first national heat stress rule for workers. The agency, what announced it would begin the process of setting a federal heat rule three years ago, submitted a proposal on June 11 to the White House Office of Management and Budget, or OMB, for review. It’s a critical step that signals the rule could be finalized relatively soon — but legal experts and labor advocates are concerned about upcoming legal, bureaucratic and political challenges to OSHA’s rulemaking process, especially in an election year. A Trump victory in November could spell doom for any federal heat stress rule — and even without an administration change in 2025, OSHA’s rule could be subject to legal challenges in the courts.

A worker hangs a sign outside a building in a forklift in the shadow of an umbrella.
Extreme heat is the deadliest extreme weather event, with a threat level increasing due to climate change. But no national regulation exists to protect indoor or outdoor workers from heat. Ariana Drehsler/Getty Images

Experts, advocates, and panels hosted by the agency suggests the standard may require worker and employer training on how to recognize and treat symptoms of heat stress, a process that enables workers new to an area to gradually adapt to dangerous temperatures, and a temperature threshold that triggers heat illness prevention programs that require more frequent, longer breaks. OSHA previously stated that the rule’s mandates could begin to take effect once the heat index approaches 80 degrees Fahrenheit, Bloomberg Law reported.

Such a rule can be transformative. “OSHA regulates the entire workforce,” said Cary Coglianese, the director of the Penn Program on Regulation and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “Heat affects every outdoor worker and some major industries — whether it’s construction, travel, transportation, I mean, you name it.”

According to Coliagnese, the draft proposal going to the White House is the start of a review process that could take about 90 days — though it could be longer or shorter. “A lot certainly depends on how much pressure there is within the administration to get a rule out,” Coglianese said.

The White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs did not respond to Grist’s request for comment on when it will complete the review. An OSHA spokesperson said in a statement, “Heat is a serious workplace hazard that threatens the health, safety and lives of workers every year,” adding that establishing a federal heat standard is a priority for the Department of Labor is. “As of Tuesday, June 11, the proposed rule is with the Office of Management and Budget for review, and we are one step closer to giving workers the protections they need and deserve.”

When the review is completed, details of the proposed rule will be released, after which the public will be given at least a 60-day period to submit comments to the agency on the rule. Coglianese cautions that a rule with such far-reaching impacts will mean OSHA is likely to receive a lot of comments.

Once the comment period is over, OSHA will need time to think about and address any issues raised by the public. How long the agency takes “is a function of the comments that come in, of their priorities, and maybe of how vexing some of the issues are,” Coglianese said. After OSHA has an updated draft, another White House review follows; if all goes well, the rule is then finalized and published in the Federal Register.

OSHA’s latest progress in this process is welcome news to many advocates who have spent years fighting for heat protection — like Nezahualcoyotl Xiuhtecutli, a senior grassroots advocacy coordinator at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Xiuhtecutli participated in a working group that made recommendations to OSHA to help inform the proposed rule. But he worries that the rulemaking process could drag on well beyond this year.

“It could take a few more years,” Xiuhtecutli said. “I think the Biden administration is interested in making that happen, so I hope they hurry to do that.”

A salesman with a cloth to protect his head from the heat pushes packs of bottled water
The recent politicization of extreme heat is reflected in experts’ predictions of the future of a long-awaited rule to protect outdoor and indoor workers across America. Aaron Schwartz/Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

Representative Greg Casar, a Democrat from Texas who went on a one-day hunger strike last year to draw attention to the urgent need for worker protection, agree that when it comes to extreme heat, time is of the essence.

“We need this heat protection, as soon as possible. We need it yesterday,” Casar said. He added that he has confidence in the Biden administration to “get it done right and get it done quickly.”

But the years-long battle waged by workers and advocates to get a national heat standard on the table now faces a looming hurdle: the upcoming presidential election.

In Coglianese’s opinion, it is unlikely that the rule will be finalized before November, or even by next January. He added that if Donald Trump takes office, he will likely hold on to any federal rules that have not yet been finalized. Even if a federal heat rule were to “go through” at the end of Biden’s term, Congress would have the authority to annul the rule under the Congressional Review Act — and Coglianese expects Trump to approve such an annulment. (The Trump campaign did not respond to Grist’s request for comment.)

Advocates share Coglianese’s concerns. “[If] Biden loses the election, then it will linger there indefinitely, or it can just be killed,” Xiuhtecutli said. “I hope it continues to move forward quickly because people’s lives depend on it,” he said.

Experts’ predictions about the future of the rule reflect the recent politicization of extreme heat. Earlier this year, the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, introduced anti-immigrant legislation which included a law prohibiting municipalities from requiring employers to provide protection, like shadow or water breaking, for outdoor workers. The bill looked a lot like a Texas law areas prohibited from creating such regulationswho passed last summer.

However, other communities have gone in the opposite direction. In Phoenix, a citywide ordinance was adopted in March mandatory heat safety plans for all companies contracted by the city.

At the state level, only six states – California, Colorado, Nevada, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington – enacted heat protection rules for outdoor workers, while three of those states enacted similar protections for indoor workers as well.

California is the latest to do so, just passed a law to enforce heat protection for indoor workers requiring employers to provide breaks, cooling areas and water when the indoor temperature reaches 82 degrees F. If the temperature exceeds 87 degrees F, companies may also be required to install cooling devices, adjust work schedules, provide more breaks, and slow workers’ production rates. Tim Shadix, legal director at the California-based nonprofit Warehouse Worker Resource Center, describes it as the “most comprehensive” set of indoor heat protection regulations in the US. and how it is enforced,” Shadix said.

But Shadix hopes the OSHA rule will go beyond the California rule by setting lower temperature thresholds that trigger heat exposure requirements. Shadix considers California’s thresholds “too high” and thinks a lower federal threshold “would be a very good thing for workers.”

However, Xiuhtecutli, of the OSHA task force, does not expect the proposed federal rule to include a national threshold for temperatures. “They can leave it to be determined by region,” he said. The Supreme Court Friday overturned A 1984 decision known as the “Chevron doctrine” that allowed federal agencies to more easily regulate the environment, public health, workplace safety and other issues. Overturning this precedent reduces the administration’s ability to enact policy changes through federal regulations, which suggest passing a national heat standard for workers. may be open to more legal challenges.

Coglianese describes the road to finalizing a federal heat standard as “an uphill battle.” Still, in his view, the case for federal protection is becoming increasingly clear. “I think, in the long game comes the heat. The politicians who try to fight it are probably going to end up on the losing side.”

Meanwhile, he asks, “How many lives will be lost due to extreme heat?” In 2023, a record 2,300 people across America died of heat-related causes, and this summer may be even hotter than last. “I hope that we can take steps to reduce that number, and my guess is that most Americans will probably feel the same way,” Coglianese said.

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