President Joe Biden announced a governmentwide strategy Monday to combat injuries from extreme heat, including the development of new federal labor standards aimed at protecting workers from the effect of rising temperatures linked to climate change.
Extreme heat now ranks as the leading weather-related cause of death in the country, according to the National Weather Service.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is in charge of workplace safety, was tasked by the White House with developing new safety standards, which would be targeted to workers outside who face the most severe effects of extreme heat, such as agricultural, construction and delivery workers, as well as those indoors in environments without air conditioning, such as many workers in warehouses, factories and kitchens. Farm and construction workers are at greatest risk of heat stroke and other problems, the White House said, but other workers lacking climate-controlled environments also face risks.
The White House said the agency, part of the Labor Department, will develop a nationwide workplace heat standard, which does not currently exist.
"Over the past few weeks, I have traveled across the country to see firsthand the devastating human and economic toll of extreme weather exacerbated by climate change," Biden said in a statement. "Rising temperatures pose an imminent threat to millions of American workers exposed to the elements, to kids in schools without air conditioning, to seniors in nursing homes without cooling resources, and particularly to disadvantaged communities."
In a statement, Biden said six federal agencies would coordinate to protect vulnerable populations -- including workers, children and the elderly -- from heat-related illnesses and other public health risks linked to rising global temperatures. Unlike more dramatic disasters, he noted, extreme heat often poses a silent menace.
Worker advocates have said extreme heat has posed a major threat for workers who toil outside and those who work indoors in facilities like warehouses for years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 43 workers died from heat-related illnesses in 2019, the most recent year data is available.
The new workplace standards will likely include hard rules about breaks, shade access and water availability that businesses would have to follow when temperatures hit a certain threshold, under the threat of financial penalties.
The Labor Department will prioritize heat-related interventions and work inspections on days when the heat index exceeds 80 degrees, the administration said. The department is also already working to complete before next summer a program that will target industries at higher risk of heat injuries and to focus more resources on inspections.
And the Environmental Protection Agency is using funds from an economic stimulus bill passed this year to provide technical assistance to create neighborhood cooling centers at public schools.
The rule-making process will require an extensive public comment period and kick off a legal process that requires the agency to establish that there is widespread risk. The process could take years before the final standard is in effect.
But advocates said that having the White House lend its attention to the issue would send a signal to companies that would be felt more immediately. The agency said it also plans to implement better enforcement of heat issues under its current rules.
"Throughout the nation, millions of workers face serious hazards from high temperatures both outdoors and indoors," Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said in a statement. "Amid changing climate, the growing frequency and intensity of extreme heat events is increasing the dangers workers face, especially for workers of color who disproportionately work in essential jobs in tough conditions."
Biden's move comes after a summer of record heat, including a heat wave in the Pacific Northwest that saw at least two workers collapse and die, and other climate-related disasters like storms in Louisiana and New York, and extreme fires in California.
A study published in May found that the growing risk of overlapping heat waves and power failures poses a severe threat to major U.S. cities. Power failures have increased by more than 60% since 2015, as climate change has intensified heat waves, according to the research in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Biden's program is one of the first direct government responses to an emerging field of research showing that extreme heat is harming and killing more workers and vulnerable populations.
Information for this article was contributed by Eli Rosenberg and Maxine Joselow of The Washington Post, by Coral Davenport of The New York Times and by Matthew Daly of The Associated Press.