heat.jpgGiven the sustained high temperatures across the country, employees who work outside, or in factories that are not air conditioned or difficult to keep cool, have had a hard time trying to do their jobs. They’ve faced heat exhaustion, serious illness and even death.

I recently wrote about the most dangerous jobs in the heat — including roofers, baggage handlers, foundry workers, road crews, and farm workers — and the government talked a lot about all they were doing to protect workers. But it turns out, they have pretty thin authority to keep employers from putting employees in harms way when it comes to the heat; and the justice system doesn’t always work after the fact.

One particularly disturbing story involved a pregnant teenager who was a farmworker, and her bosses got a way with a slap on the wrist.

From the Associated Press:

Two California farm supervisors charged in the heat-related death of a pregnant teen farmworker reached a plea deal Wednesday and were sentenced to community service and probation, angering farmworker advocates who had called for jail time.

Authorities said Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez, 17, died in 2008 because supervisors denied her shade and water as she pruned grapes for nine hours in nearly triple-digit heat in a San Joaquin County vineyard.

Yes, the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been putting out a lot of press releases, and creating websites and campaigns to warn people about the hazards of working in the heat, but when it comes to mandating standards that employers have to follow, they don’t exist.

One OSHA fact sheet about heat stress goes on for two pages about measures employers “should take to prevent worker illnesses and death caused by heat stress.”

But at the end of the fact sheet there’s this disclaimer:

This document is advisory in nature and informational in content. It is not a standard or regulation, and it
neither creates new legal obligations
nor alters existing obligations created by OSHA standards or the
Occupational Safety and Health Act.

The agency has not created any standard for heat exposure on the job, and several groups are looking to push OSHA to do just that.

This morning, consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, filed a petition with OSHA calling for the agency to adopt such a standard.

“The epidemic of worker injury and death due to extreme heat exposure is only projected to worsen with global warming, as we see more frequent days of extreme heat,” said Dr. Sammy Almashat, researcher with Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “Yet OSHA has repeatedly refused to act on recommendations from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and its own advisory committee to enact a heat standard that would protect workers from these entirely preventable health effects. As a result, tens of thousands of workers have suffered serious injury or death while OSHA essentially relies on employers to police themselves.”

NIOSH undertook an extensive study in 1972 on heat exposure and recommended that OSHA adopt a standard to protect workers from dangerous heat-related effects. In response, OSHA appointed an advisory committee that proposed a heat exposure standard. Yet OSHA ignored both the committee’s advice and additional recommendations provided in 1986 by NIOSH. This year, OSHA launched an educational campaign for employers and workers on the dangers of heat exposure, but because it lacks an effective enforcement policy to hold employers accountable, this effort is doomed to fail, Public Citizen said in its petition.

There are standards for many other workplace hazards, but not for heat-related issues. For those hazards that are without regulations, OSHA can use something called the General Duty Clause, which stipulates that employers must provide a safe work environment for employees. But labor advocates don’t think that goes far enough when it comes to the serious health risks heat can cause.

Indeed, we’re seeing warmer temperatures, which an OSHA official acknowledged to me recently: “July was hottest on record in most of the U.S., and it’s important for all employers and workers to be aware of this,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA. “The symptoms of heat are often not easily recognizable.”

Given all this, maybe it’s time for heat mandates with some employer heat, no?

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