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A new federal rule could offer protection from extreme heat to millions of workers

A proposed rule from the the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would for the first time set in place regulations to better protect workers from extreme heat. Above,  a construction worker takes a break and drinks some water during a heatwave in Boston on June 19.
Joseph Prezioso
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AFP via Getty Images

A proposed rule from the the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would for the first time set in place regulations to better protect workers from extreme heat. Above, a construction worker takes a break and drinks some water during a heatwave in Boston on June 19.

The U.S. Department of Labor has proposed a new rule that would require employers to develop injury and illness prevention plans in order to better protect workers from heat-related injuries and death.

“Workers all over the country are passing out, suffering heat stroke and dying from heat exposure from just doing their jobs, and something must be done to protect them,” Doug Parker, assistant secretary for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Today’s proposal is an important next step in the process to receive public input to craft a ‘win-win’ final rule that protects workers while being practical and workable for employers,” Parker said.  

Heat is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States, killing more than 200 people last year. The department said that new regulations could provide protection for some 36 million workers nationwide, particularly people of color, who are more likely to work in roles that could expose them to extreme heat.

The proposed rule comes as the nation continues to experience record-shattering heat waves and extreme weather activity, and as more than 75 million people were under heat alerts on Tuesday.

Last year was the hottest year on record since global temperatures began being documented in 1850.

Heat-related deaths have climbed over the past few years as the globe continues to grapple with more extreme weather conditions, and scientific consensus says climate change brought on by human activity is to blame. There were an average of 34 heat-related workplace deaths each year between 1992 and 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2022 alone, there were 43 such fatalities.

“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,” said Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su.

The Labor Department proposal would create a range of new protections based around two separate heat index thresholds. At the first trigger, when the combined temperature and relative humidity hits 80 degrees, employers would be required to provide drinking water and rest breaks.

Additional protections would kick in when the heat index hits 90 degrees. At that point, employers would also have to provide a minimum 15-minute paid rest break every two hours. They would also have to have a system in place for monitoring their workers for signs of heat-related illness or symptoms.

Getting the rule finalized will be an uphill battle during a tumultuous election year and amid strong opposition from deep-pocketed lobbying groups.

The road to approval could prove easier should President Biden secure a second term in office, but former President Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for office, has indicated his intention to minimize federal oversight on private industries and could block the rule's implementation.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.
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