Feds, state both looking to protect workers from extreme heat
But enforcement will be the key, advocates say
Working in Las Vegas in July. (Photo: Ronda Churchill)
Heat is the nation’s leading cause of weather-related deaths, and heat waves are becoming more intense and more frequent as the planet warms, especially in the Southwest.
Now the Biden administration is planning to implement new federal measures to keep workers safe from extreme heat after unprecedented heat waves in the Pacific Northwest left hundreds dead this summer. And Nevada is poised to strengthen workplace regulations.
The new federal rule will be crafted by the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and will apply to both indoor and outdoor workplaces, the White House said. The rule-making process will start this month on what requirements the rule will include.
The federal heat standards will include heat stress thresholds, heat acclimatization planning, exposure monitoring, and strategies to protect workers.
“As with other weather events, extreme heat is gaining in frequency and ferocity due to climate change, threatening communities across the country,” said President Joe Biden in a statement announcing the new measures. “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.”
Despite what experts describe as widespread under-reporting, OSHA reported 43 workers died from heat illness nationwide in 2019, and at least 2,410 others suffered serious heat-related injuries and illnesses.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said in a statement that high heat threatens millions of workers both outdoors and indoors.
“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,” Walsh said.
The White House also announced OSHA would begin a new heat intervention and enforcement program, prioritizing workplace inspections on days when the heat index exceeds 80 degrees.
A federal heat standard would create clear employer obligations for protecting workers from high heat and give the agency stronger tools to address heat hazards and issue fines. It would also set minimum requirements in every state, including those without occupational rules to address heat-related illnesses.
Nevada, like most states, has no specific regulations on how employers should handle heat illness. State regulators have some ability to prevent heat risks under a general duty clause that requires workplaces be “free from recognized hazards” that could lead to injuries or fatalities, but those guidelines are limited.
Nevada operates an OSHA-approved state plan covering most private sector workers and all state and local government workers, the plan is overseen by the Nevada Division of Industrial Relations.
In 2020 Nevada OSHA received a total of 113 complaints or referrals on nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses resulting from exposure to environmental heat. The most by far were in Southern Nevada, the source of 98 complaints. Nevada OSHA accepted a total of 47 worker’s compensation claims for heat illness in Nevada fiscal year 2020.
That is a significant increase in heat stress complaints compared to previous years. In 2019, Nevada OSHA received 43 heat-stress complaints from workers. In 2018, the agency received 49 complaints and in 2017 it received 63.
“When there’s more heat there’s more problems. Especially in the summer, OSHA needs to pay more attention to these complaints so immediate action can be taken because the worker's life is at risk,” said Eleazar Castellanos, an authorized OSHA trainer for the construction industry in Southern Nevada.
Las Vegas is the fastest-warming city in the nation, according to the research group Climate Central. Regulations for heat stress are critical and when those regulations are skirted by employers the results can be dangerous.
“It’s really obvious when a worker is fatigued due to the heat and it’s obvious that it’s because regulations were not followed,” Castellanos said in his native Spanish.
On Thursday, the Nevada Division of Industrial Relations will conduct a virtual public hearing to consider proposed permanent regulations amending Nevada’s occupational safety and health rules.
“Given Nevada’s hot desert climate, the Division of Industrial Relations has been monitoring trends in heat stress complaints submitted to OSHA and determined that a regulation would be a helpful tool to improve worker safety,” said Teri Williams, a spokesperson for the Department of Business and Industry. “The regulation provides specific standards that employers must follow, which makes it clearer as to what is expected at the workplace.”
Those regulations include requiring employers to consider “personal risk factors for heat illness” that affect the retention of water by the body and other physiological responses to heat. The regulations would also require employers to provide heat illness training for all supervisors and procedures for responding to an emergency.
State Plans are monitored by OSHA and must be at least as effective as OSHA at protecting workers and preventing work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths. The division said once federal standards have been finalized, Nevada OSHA will review the federal standards to determine if any changes are required.
Groups representing workers, however, say it’s not enough to just update standards, and argue that more enforcement needs to be prioritized.
“Right now it’s been recognized that a lot of employers don’t follow those regulations so they are making changes to the policies,” Castellanos said in Spanish. “But even though we already have laws, employers don’t follow them.”
Nevada OSHA conducted fewer in-field heat stress inspections in 2020 and 2019 than in recent years, despite an increase in complaints. That’s also a significant drop from the 15 in-field inspections performed in 2018 and the 14 performed in 2017.
The Division says the percentage of complaints resulting in an inspection varies from year to year due to multiple factors, including the validity of the complaints, whether the agency had jurisdiction, the agency’s enforcement priorities and staffing.
“It shouldn’t be a surprise that in 2020, the agency was overwhelmed with COVID-related complaints. Additionally, with the governor’s early emergency directives to help reduce community transmission, they implemented an observation-based approach to COVID mitigation measures which diverted some staffing resources away from the traditional enforcement practices of the agency which lasted through the end of 2020,” said Williams.
Williams noted that all heat stress complaints were addressed but how they were addressed was modified due to the evolving conditions, staffing and enforcement priorities.
“OSHA statistics during the pandemic for complaints and inspections will be an outlier- there has been nothing like it in the history of the agency,” Williams said.
The Arriba Las Vegas Workers Center facilitates OSHA training in Spanish for limited-English speaking at-risk and hard-to-reach workers.
“A regulation is great but it’s not powerful unless you implement it. You need to do more aggressive enforcement to really see a change in health and safety,” said Bliss Requa-Trautz, director for the center.
The center has found that many workers, especially non-English speaking ones, are not aware of their right to water, shade and rest under the Nevada OSHA plan, making enforcement of abusive employers difficult.
This year the center received an $80,000 grant from the Susan Harwood Training Program to start a pilot program to provide 0.5 to 5 hours of day laborer safety training and 16 hours of train-the-trainer training to workers in the construction, landscaping, moving, cleaning, and temporary worker industries. Part of the training topics will include heat safety training in Spanish.
“It’s essential for Nevada OSHA to partner with community organizations and with workers to increase investigations and enforcement,” said Requa-Trautz.
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