In Face of Climate Change, Attorney General Bonta Calls for Swift Action to Protect Workers Nationwide from Heat-Related Injury and Illness

Thursday, January 27, 2022
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Highlights success of California’s first-in-the-nation heat standard for outdoor workers

OAKLAND – California Attorney General Rob Bonta today joined a coalition of six attorneys general in a comment letter calling on the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to act quickly to implement a national standard to protect workers from heat-related injury and illness. Over the past 35 years, heat has claimed more lives per year on average than flooding and hurricanes combined. As climate change yields higher temperatures around the world, workers in the United States will almost certainly face increased risk of heat-related illness and death. In the comment letter, the coalition highlights the success of California’s first-in-the-nation heat standard for outdoor workers and issues a series of recommendations for national heat standards for both indoor and outdoor workers.

“As climate change continues to rapidly advance, we need urgent action to both mitigate and adapt to its effects,” said Attorney General Bonta. “The federal government must act swiftly to protect workers nationwide from preventable heat-related illness. Whether you’re a postal worker, cook, or grape picker, we all deserve protection.” 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, exposure to excessive heat seriously injured nearly 70,000 workers and killed 783 from 1992 through 2016. However, because heat exposure often exacerbates underlying medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, it is likely that many heat-related deaths go misdiagnosed or unrecognized. In the United States, there are millions of workers in industries and occupations who are at serious risk of injury or death from heat exposure. Yet, the health impacts of extreme heat and other climate-related harms are not borne equally. Low-income communities and some communities of color suffer elevated rates of mortality and morbidity from extreme heat, with Black individuals being among the most vulnerable. Racial injustice is inherent in occupational heat exposure because jobs with the highest rates of heat-related illness are disproportionately held by people of color. For instance, recent data show that Hispanic or Latino immigrants in California and the Southwest — workers who are overrepresented in agriculture and construction — are disproportionately vulnerable to heat-related fatalities.

In 2005, California adopted an emergency standard to reduce occupational heat-related illness following a major heat wave and, in 2006, became the first state to pass a permanent standard applicable to outdoor workers. California’s standard includes provisions on hydration; providing access to shade; high-heat procedures for temperatures at or above 95°F; emergency response procedures; acclimatization; training; and heat illness prevention plans. From 2011 through 2017, California conducted about 4,000 inspections annually to evaluate compliance and issued more than $13 million in penalties to businesses that failed to adhere to the standards. California targets its inspections at what have traditionally been the highest-risk industries for outdoor heat-related injuries — the agriculture and construction sectors. In the agricultural sector, California hires as many as 829,000 people, more than 90% of whom are immigrants who speak Spanish or indigenous languages. California has also taken steps to address the problem of indoor heat exposure and the state is currently in the process of adopting new regulations.

In the comment letter, building on the collective experience of the states, the coalition sets out a number of recommendations for national heat standards, including that OSHA should:

  • Set quantifiable heat exposure thresholds;
  • Require employers to implement preventive measures to minimize the risk of occupational heat-related illness;
  • Require employers to keep records of all heat-related injuries and illnesses in the workplace and to report those records;
  • Enhance its workplace inspection program; and
  • Require employers to institute measures to protect vulnerable workers who are at a higher risk of heat-related illness and death.

In filing the comment letter, Attorney General Bonta joins the attorneys general of New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

A copy of the comment letter is available here.

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