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Biden unveils rules to protect millions of US workers from extreme heat | Climate crisis


Biden unveils rules to protect millions of US workers from extreme heat | Climate crisis

Climate crisis

Proposal would create first federal standard for workplace exposure to extreme heat, which kills dozens each year

The Biden administration has unveiled a long-awaited proposal to protect workers from extreme temperatures.

If finalized, the rule will establish the nation’s first-ever federal safety standard for excessive heat exposure in the workplace and protect as many as 36 million indoor and outdoor workers from heat-related injury.

Announced on Tuesday amid temperature warnings across the country, the rule would require employers to establish heat safety coordinators, undergo extreme heat safety training, create and regularly update emergency heat response plans, and provide workers with shade and water.

It would also require a heat acclimatization process for new employees to gradually increase their exposure to high temperatures. Three out of four workers who die of workplace heat exposure in the US die during their first week on the job, senior administration officials told reporters on Monday.

The proposed rule includes specific safeguards for when the heat index in a workplace breaches 80F (27C), including increased access to water and temperature-controlled break rooms. At a 90F (32C) heat index, the standard would trigger additional protections, including paid 15-minute breaks every two hours, mandated observation of employees and hazard alerts for all workers.

Employers who fail to meet the standard could be subject to fines. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s general-duty clause, workplaces with dangerous levels of heat stress can be subject to penalties of roughly $16,000; the rule would substantially increase that amount, administration officials said.

Advocates and policymakers celebrated the move. “For decades, workers have been organizing for federal protections from the extreme heat. Despite opposition from big corporations, these working families are finally winning the protections they deserve,” said Representative Greg Casar of Texas, who last year went on an all-day thirst strike calling for heat protections.

Extreme heat is the deadliest form of extreme weather, killing hundreds of Americans each year. The threat is increasing amid the climate crisis.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Osha) projects that the rule would affect 36 million indoor and workers such as delivery people and mail carriers, construction workers, and agricultural laborers, substantially reducing heat injuries, illnesses and deaths.

Dozens of workers die from heat exposure in the workplace every year. Federal data shows that the US saw 436 such deaths between 2011 and 2021 – a count that experts widely regard as conservative.

After years of pressure from climate and labor advocates, Osha began the years-long process of creating the federal heat rules in 2021. Last month, the agency submitted a proposal to the Office of Management and Budget for review. The speedy approval was possible thanks to years of hard work to craft a robust rule, according to senior administration officials.

The new rule would apply to all 50 US states, including Texas and Florida, which have passed laws preventing municipalities from adopting workplace heat safety measures. The 22 states that maintain their own Osha-approved workplace rules would be required to pass regulations that meet or exceed the federal heat standard’s protections.

The finalized proposal is a landmark step, but the Biden administration faces a long road ahead to ensure workers are protected from extreme heat. If Donald Trump wins in November, his administration could torpedo the effort.

The rule is also likely to face legal challenges from businesses and lobbying groups that have staunchly opposed such a measure.

The White House revealed the heat standard proposal alongside a suite of other new heat and climate-focused measures. Another new effort: the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) announced it is allocating $1bn in awards to help communities grapple with climate threats such as heat, storms and floods.

The funding from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law will go to 656 projects across the country, including a stormwater runoff mitigation program in Philadelphia; a flood drainage channel in Goldsboro, North Carolina; and a plan to build shaded bus stops in Washington DC. A minimum of 40% of the funding will be routed to disadvantaged communities, senior administration officials said.

The Environmental Protection Agency will also release a new report on Tuesday showing the far-reaching effects of the climate crisis on US communities and ecosystems. It will show that the dangers of heat are increasing, noting that the average US heatwave season is 46 days longer today than it was in the 1960s, while the average heatwave in major American cities today lasts about four days – roughly a full day longer than the average heatwave in the 1960s.

Despite years of public pressure, the Biden administration has not declared a climate emergency. Doing so would unlock a trove of unilateral emergency powers to help quell the climate crisis.

Experts agree that curbing the climate crisis will also require the US to swiftly phase out fossil-fuel production. No country has ever produced more oil and gas in a single year than the US did in 2023.

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