Why Don’t We Have Serious Regulations on Making People Work in the Heat?

No more excuses for heat deaths. As global warming worsens, it’s time to guarantee workers’ basic human rights.

Last month, 46-year-old construction worker Felipe Pascual collapsed and died in the heat while pouring concrete in Houston. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, ER visits for heat-related illnesses are up substantially this year over last year, and have broken a record. The New York Times has featured the disturbing stories of other Texans found dead in homes without air conditioning. Working in extreme heat is miserable at best and deadly at worst, but across the country, people are forced to do it, from airplane cabin cleaners who work in planes with the AC turned off to the UPS drivers who have had to fight the company to get AC in their trucks to the AC repair workers themselves, who crawl into attics where it can be 150 degrees

Global warming is getting worse and worse. This year is the hottest on record, and you can feel it all over the place. Here in New Orleans, the heat has been unbearable for weeks on end, and just trying to breathe outside can feel suffocating. Knowing that this is only going to get worse as the years pass is downright terrifying. (It depresses me deeply that whenever I mention the climate catastrophe on social media, there are inevitably some respondents who inform me that summers are always hot and I am an idiot for thinking there’s anything to be alarmed about.) 

It should be pretty clear that in these extreme conditions, safeguarding the basic human rights of those who work outdoors or in non-air-conditioned spaces is essential. Many employers will fear losing profits from stopping work, and will push workers beyond what is safe. To make sure people like Pascual aren’t worked to death, there need to be strict safety regulations guaranteeing people enough time in the shade and access to air conditioning and cold water. And that’s the bare minimum. What we really need to ask is: why should we force people to endure these conditions at all

Republicans, of course, couldn’t care less about keeping people safe in the heat. The party is almost universally comprised of climate change deniers. As the heat gets worse, Republicans at the national level are trying to cut funding for combating climate change. When I recently interviewed Christopher Rufo, whose mission is to cause a nationwide freakout about Critical Race Theory, he dismissed the entire climate issue as “talking about the weather,” as if nothing could be more boring. In Texas, instead of helping people stay safe in the heat, Governor Greg Abbott is taking the unbelievably sociopathic step of banning Texas cities from enforcing heat-related safety regulations, thus eliminating mandatory water breaks

Some states are more humane and responding in a sane way to the new extreme temperatures. Washington has introduced new heat protection rules for workers. But as the Washington Post reports, workers nationwide have “barely any” protection from extreme heat, and “forcing people to work in deadly heat is mostly legal.” The Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which should strictly enforce basic standards for keeping workers safe, often imposes penalties “after a worker has died or been hurt on the job” instead of “proactively forcing employers to provide adequate water, shade, and rest.” While OSHA is drafting a standard, the process is expected to take years (for some reason), and we’re stuck with a patchwork of state regulations, many of which give workers little protection.

Obama-era OSHA head David Michaels recently explained in The Atlantic that there is a massive nationwide failure to protect workers, and “OSHA is unlikely to require these basic protections any time soon.” But Michaels insists OSHA does not bear responsibility, and that Congress should have stepped up to act. (Michaels also notes that “federal OSHA has no standard for the smoke that presents significant risks to outdoor workers.”) Michaels says that “Congress could direct OSHA to fast-track new rules for heat and respiratory protection.” But it hasn’t. 

So why the hell not? Democrats have known about global warming for decades. Why haven’t they introduced basic worker protections up until now? Finally, today, a group of eight Texas representatives has introduced a measure that would guarantee heat protection. What has taken so long? Why isn’t Joe Biden out giving speeches about this issue?

This issue should be totally uncontroversial. We’re talking about making sure people don’t get worked to death. This should be a top priority. It’s morally urgent. Leaders shouldn’t be leaving it to the states. But the people in these jobs are usually politically powerless, and many of them are immigrants.

And yet, as on so many issues, Democrats have sat on their hands when they could have been taking action. I was recently exasperated to see former top Obama advisor David Axelrod complaining that for years, “the world shrugged” about climate change, until the effects became only too clear. But as I’ve documented here before, it was the Obama administration that shrugged at a critical moment when action was needed, ignoring climate activists and pushing a fossil fuel friendly approach to the crisis. David Michaels does not discuss in his Atlantic piece the questions of why he was not leading on this issue when he had actual power. 

The failure to act is morally indefensible, but it also makes no political sense. Joe Biden is extremely unpopular, and Democrats are frustrated that voters do not appear to think he has brought obvious benefits to their lives. Protecting people from extreme heat would be a real, meaningful change that people would notice. It is a way to distinguish Democrats from Republicans that would operate massively to Democrats’ advantage: we’re the party who doesn’t want your employer to work you to death in the heat, the Republicans are the party that will deny it’s even that hot outside. Leading on the issue is a way to highlight the climate crisis, an issue on which the Republican position is homicidally insane. “I gave you water breaks and air conditioning” is a good 2024 message for Joe Biden, much better than “Actually, the economy is good and you just aren’t grateful enough.” The party would finally have an answer to voters’ basic question: “What have you actually accomplished that has made a meaningful difference to ordinary people’s lives?”

Of course, as usual, Democrats may point to Republican power as evidence that nothing can possibly be done. Joe Manchin! The House! But that’s actually why this issue is a great one for Democrats. They can dare Republicans to go on record explaining why workers should die in the heat. If that’s the other party’s position, which it is, then Democrats can make sure Americans understand that the other side wants them to die in the heat.

The new legislation is a chance for Democrats to lead on this issue at last. They had better. If not, it will confirm that for all their talk about how the other side are science-deniers, Democrats ultimately do not feel much urgency about mitigating the disastrous effects of global warming. Certainly, they aren’t acting like this is an emergency. But we the people, who are still technically supposed to be in charge of this country, need to step up and demand that they act. We cannot allow our fellow human beings to be scorched and parched and left to die. 

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