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Workers in summer heat need far better protections, groups say

Sebastien Malo

18 Jul 2018

By Sebastien Malo (Thomson Reuters Foundation) | 18 July 2018

“If executives were sitting in their offices dropping off from heat exhaustion, probably something would be done more quickly”

NEW YORK – Outdoor workers must be better protected from extreme heat with nationwide regulations to fill a dangerous lack of safety measures, U.S. environmental and labor groups said on Wednesday as the country braced for blazing summer temperatures.

Mandatory rest breaks and access to shade should be required and enforced under a national effort, according to a call by more than 130 groups, former heads of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and universities.

Some 69,000 workers were seriously injured from heat in the last quarter century, federal data show, and nearly 800 workers died from exposure during that period.

Heat is the leading cause of death from extreme weather, according to the National Weather Service.

The coalition sent OSHA a petition this week calling for mandatory rest breaks, protective equipment such as cooling garments, heat-related record-keeping and worker training.

OSHA, the government’s workplace safety regulator, has no specific standards for occupational heat exposure, and state-level standards only exist in California and Washington, the groups said.

Globally, regulations to limit heat exposure are increasingly common and can be found in China, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Greece and Poland, according to U.S.-based Enhesa, a health and safety consulting company.

Action is growing more urgent due to climate change that is bringing higher temperatures, said David Arkush, managing director of Public Citizen, a consumer group that is part of the coalition along the United Farm Workers Foundation and former OSHA directors Eula Bingham and David Michael.

In the contiguous United States, the average temperature is projected to be 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit (1.4 degrees Celsius) warmer over the next three decades than it was from 1976 to 2005, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Designing protections for outdoor workers has been slow in part due to their lack of political clout, said Sharon Harlan, a professor of health sciences and sociology at Northeastern University in Boston.

“If executives were sitting in their offices dropping off from heat exhaustion, probably something would be done more quickly,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The National Weather Service warned this week of a heat wave that was predicted to bring temperatures in Houston, Texas as high as 98 to 100 degrees F (37 to 38 C) for several days.

(Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst)
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