On July 5, James Baldasarre, a 45-year old a Medford, Massachusetts US Postal Service employee who had worked for USPS for 24 years, died from excessive heat. According to news reports, shortly before collapsing in the 95-degree heat, Baldasarre texted his wife to say, “I’m going to die out here today. It’s so hot.” On July 9, Juan Ochoa, a 37-year old farm worker in Tulare County, California about 35 miles north of Bakersfield, died from heat while checking on irrigation equipment in a lemon orchard. The temperatures that day reportedly climbed to 105º and 106ºF. According to his brother, the company for which they were working had provided neither shade nor water.
Since then, according to US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) records, five other workers have succumbed to excessive heat: an employee of a plumbing and HVAC company in Louisiana; a landscaping company employee in Wisconsin; a construction worker in Indiana; a recycling company employee in New York City, and a spa employee in New Jersey. Altogether OSHA lists 16 possible heat fatalities between June 6 and July 26, 2013, when a heat wave engulfed much of the US – including the deaths of Baldasarre in Massachusetts and Ochoa in California. Two of these deaths occurred in Texas, five in California, four in the Midwest, three in the Northeast and two in the South (Virginia and Louisiana). According to these records, three farm workers, a landscaper, two electrical contractors and a utility worker, two oil and gas industry workers, two construction industry workers and a shipyard employee are among those who have died from heat exposure this summer. All are now under investigation by OSHA.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), seven of the ten warmest years on record for the 48 contiguous US states have occurred since 1998, with 2012 the warmest year on record. The first six months of 2013 have also been warmer than average, with drought across much of the West. As temperatures continue to rise with ongoing climate change, protecting workers from excessive heat exposure is a pressing concern. OSHA has issued advisories, guidelines and recommendations for on-the-job protections from heat, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has also issued heat-protection recommendations. But there is no federal occupational heat standard that requires employers nationwide to implement measures to protect their workers from harmful heat exposures. California and Washington state have outdoor occupational heat standards, and Minnesota has one for indoor heat, but it is otherwise left to employers whether or not they provide workers with the recommended hourly shade rest breaks and drinking water.
OSHA says that heat has killed, on average, more than 30 workers a year since 2003 – 61 in 2011, 21 listed thus far for 2012 and 16 in 2013. These include a 47-year old sanitation worker in New Jersey who collapsed after being on the job for 9 hours in temperatures that climbed to above 90º, and who died on June 1, 2012 from heat stroke after his body temperature reached over106ºF. His employer was fined $7,000. In July 2012, a US Postal Service Worker in Independence, Missouri died from heat exposure. He’d been on the job since 7:30 a.m., delivering mail from an enclosed vehicle without air conditioning and walking while outdoor temperatures climbed to above 100ºF on a day when the National Weather Service had issued an excessive heat warning. When he collapsed, it was 102ºF with a heat index of 104ºF. He had called his employer around noon that day reporting symptoms of heat-related illness and asked to go home but was told to continue working. Less than three hours he collapsed. At the hospital, where he died, his core body temperature was recorded at 108.7ºF. OSHA lists the violation as willful and fined the Postal Service $70,000.
The National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that 423 US workers have died from heat between 1992 and 2006, which is in line with OSHA’s estimate of 30 workers killed by heat each year. This means approximately 600 people have died on the job due to excessive heat in the past 20 years. In addition OSHA says that some 4,420 workers were sickened by excessive heat in 2011, the most recent year for which these figures are available. These numbers, OSHA notes, are not considered to be exhaustive, so the fatalities and illness numbers are likely higher than the statistics noted here.
Addressing heat hazards
In remarks about OSHA’s ongoing heat awareness campaign delivered on July 1 of this year, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels called heat exposure fatalities like that of the New Jersey sanitation worker in 2012, “entirely preventable.” He also noted that workers most at risk for heat-related illnesses are those who are new to outdoor jobs, especially temporary workers – a category that includes many workers in construction, agriculture, landscaping and oil and gas extraction.
California’s heat protection regulation applies to workers in these industries and to those transporting agricultural, construction and other heavy materials and products. But heat fatalities have occurred in most of these industries since 2008, including in California, where the heat-protection regulations do not apply to work loading or unloading cargo. California’s heat protection measures kick in when temperatures rise to 85ºF or above and, for excessive-heat protection measures, at 95º F or above.
In Washington state, outdoor heat protection measures are applicable May 1 through September 30 of each year, vary depending on type of clothing worn, and apply inside vehicles that lack “engineering controls” for heat. The state has additional heat safety standards for fire-fighters and agricultural workers, and indoor heat is covered by a separate provision of the state’s occupational health standards. Minnesota’s standard focuses on excessive indoor heat but notes that “Heat stress may occur year-round in foundries, kitchens or laundries, or for only a few days during the summer in almost any work setting.” It also says that acclimatization to outdoor heat in Minnesota can be particularly problematic as “daily high temperatures can vary up to 30 degrees from one day to the next during the summer.”
In 2011, Public Citizen, Farmworker Justice, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America filed a petition asking that OSHA enact an emergency temporary standard to protect workers from excessive heat. Responding in June 2012, the Department of Labor denied the petition, saying that it was already taking action to address the problem. OSHA wrote that while it agreed “exposure to extreme heat can lead to death,” most workers with adverse health effects resulting from heat exposure “are able to recover fairly quickly when appropriate measures are taken.” In its letter, OSHA acknowledged that although the number of occupational heat-exposure related deaths, particularly among agricultural workers, are most likely underreported, the documented mortality rate did not rise to the level that would trigger an emergency temporary standard.
Meanwhile, labor advocates note that some success has been achieved in protecting workers from heat on the job, in one case – that of a nursing home laundry – simply by logging temperatures to alert workers to hazards and needed precautions. In New York City, Transit Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 won improvements on heat issues for indoor and outdoor work that resulting better air conditioning and guidelines that allow for better access to cooling and water. Advocates note, however, that advice to drink more water can be problematic for delivery, transportation and other mobile workers without reliable on-the-job access to toilets.
As temperatures continue to warm, the question of why heat-protective measures are not mandatory for all US employers also becomes more pressing.