Capital Clicks

OSHA to ramp up workplace heat checks as global warming advances

By: - September 29, 2021 3:46 pm
Iowa is one of the nation's top producers of wind energy. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Wind turbines frame an Iowa sunset. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Federal workplace safety regulators say they are taking steps toward protecting workers from heat-related illness.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Sept. 24 announced that it will finally establish a federal workplace heat standard. The agency also promised an expansion of heat inspections and enforcement of rules protecting against heat hazards. 

Iowa recorded 882 emergency department visits for heat-related illnesses in 2020. Forty-four patients were hospitalized due to heat-related illness. The statistics encompass all heat issues, not just those that occurred in the workplace.

The Iowa Department of Public Health did not immediately reply to a request for comment about how many deaths have been caused by heat. 

A July study found that U.S. safety regulators are significantly undercounting workplace injuries due to hot temperatures. Researchers used California insurance claim data to determine that workplace injuries related to heat stress do not appear in official counts.

Heat stress affects not only employees laboring in the sun, but workers who are indoors as well, researchers found.

An investigation by Politico and E&E News uncovered that federal workplace safety officials have refused to set a workplace heat standard across nine presidential administrations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first recommended OSHA write heat-specific protections in 1975.

They also found that even if OSHA does create such a standard, the agency is deeply unprepared and understaffed to enforce it.

The problem will continue to get worse as climate change fuels rising temperatures across the country, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. They project more days per year when temperature and humidity combine to create a heat index — that’s what the weather really feels like outside.

A 2019 study from the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that Central Iowa has historically had about 25 days per year when the heat index was below 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Without action to combat climate change, that could grow to 68 days per year by the middle of the 21st century.

A new study published this week in the journal Science found that children today will likely live through three times as many climate disasters and seven times as many heatwaves as their grandparents.

OHSA said area directors across the country will begin prioritizing inspections of heat-related complaints, referrals and employer-reported illnesses, and initiate onsite investigations where possible.

The directors will also be expected to instruct compliance safety and health officers during their travels to job sites to intervene or begin an inspection when they see workers performing strenuous work in hot conditions, and to expand other inspections based on workplace conditions even when no complaint has been made.

Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter Katie Akin contributed reporting.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher, a journalist based in Santa Fe, is a reporter for Source NM. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.