The Biden Administration is rolling out several new programs that will help protect outdoor workers from extreme heat. The Department of Labor will increase enforcement of the latest OSHA requirements in industries and areas facing the most risk. The DOL will also use a Hazard Alert for Heat to warn employers and workers when conditions are unsafe.
The White House has announced new measures designed to protect outdoor workers from extreme heat, including agricultural workers, firefighters, crossing guards, and construction workers, amid the extreme heat many areas of the US have been facing. President Joe Biden's administration plans to spend $7 million to develop more detailed weather predictions to anticipate extreme weather like heat waves, plus $152 million to boost drinking water infrastructure and climate resilience in California, Colorado, and Washington State.
July 2023 was the hottest month on record, according to NASA. By the end of the month, the maximum temperature in Phoenix, AZ, exceeded 110°F (43°C) 27 days in a row. The Brookings Institute estimates that around 23 million Americans live in places most at risk for extreme heat, mainly cities and regions located along the nation’s Sun Belt, such as parts of California, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico. Some 118 million Americans face at least 26 days with temperatures over 90 degrees each year.
The administration reports that over 400 people have died from heat-related illnesses since 2011. It remains the number-one weather-related killer in the U.S. The effects total more than floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes in America combined. Outdoor workers face a high risk of heat stress and related illnesses because they spend long periods of time in the heat. Physically intense labor increases body temperature. Heat stress and illness can still occur in mild temperatures. Workers may be required to wear personal protective equipment that can increase the risk of heat stress.
New Heat Protection for Outdoor Workers
The White House news briefing featured several initiatives that should reduce the risk of heat stroke among outdoor workers.
Hazard Alert for Extreme Heat
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is creating the first-ever Hazard Alert for heat to help employers and workers better understand the risks of heat-related illnesses. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regularly issues alerts to workers in various industries regarding specific hazards. The alert describes the threat facing workers and outlines tips employers and employees can take to protect themselves on the job. It also reminds workers of their rights, including whistleblower protections for those who refuse to put themselves in harm's way, while reminding employers of the latest OSHA regulations and requirements.
National Emphasis Program
The DOL is also launching a National Emphasis Program — announced in 2022 — to step up enforcement of the latest protections regarding extreme heat. An agency task force will inspect businesses and workplaces in areas and industries where workers face the most risk. Those who fail to comply with the new regulations will face steep fines from OSHA.
Heat Illness Prevention Campaign
The administration is investing in a public relations campaign to increase worker awareness of the risks of heat stroke. The Heat Illness Prevention website offers resources to help all types of employees stay current with the latest scientific findings, including how extreme affects our bodies and minds. The campaign will target workers who face the most risk, including low-income individuals, people of color, and non-English-speaking workers.
Improving Weather Forecasts
Anticipating the weather is key to preventing heat-related illnesses and injuries. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is using $7 million from the President’s Inflation Reduction Act to create a new Data Assimilation Consortium that will improve the accuracy of the agency’s global observing system. NOAA has been helping cities and towns collect climate data.
The administration will share data and resources with various universities and institutions across the country. This helps cities, states, and local governments better prepare for the warming climate as temperatures continue to rise. Employers can also use this data to predict how these changes may affect their operations. The data will also be accessible to the public so workers can determine if they are at risk of heat stroke.
Officials will issue an extreme heat warning when the maximum heat index is expected to reach or surpass 100°F for at least two days, and nighttime temperatures won’t drop below 75°F. The warning is usually given at least 12 hours in advance, but more sophisticated predictions will give businesses and workers more time to prepare.
Increasing Access to Clean Drinking Water
The western part of the U.S. has faced severe drought in recent years due to the warming climate and the depletion of natural resources, such as the Colorado River. Extreme heat and perspiration increase the risk of dehydration, which increases the demand for drinking water in the years to come.
The administration is spending $152 million from the Inflation Reduction Act to shore up the nation’s freshwater supply. The money will go toward building and refitting water storage facilities, delamination processing centers that remove metals from the water supply, and laying new pipes to increase access to clean drinking water in areas at risk of drought.
Preventing Extreme Heat in Outdoor Workers
The administration works with various stakeholders to develop a national standard for preventing heat-related illnesses and injuries. In the meantime, the White House will use these campaigns to remind workers of their OSHA worker rights and protections to guard them against extreme heat effects.
All staff, including managers and supervisors, should be trained in the risks and warning signs of heat stroke. The agency says employers should calculate the total heat stress for each worker every workday, including any residual heat leftover from the previous workday, the physical intensity of the job based on the expected workload, and the added effect of wearing personal protective equipment. It’s important to distinguish between acclimated and unacclimated workers, those who have only been on the job for one to two weeks or less. Newer outdoor workers tend to face a higher risk of heat stroke because their bodies aren’t used to dealing with the effects.
Companies can use the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) to determine if the heat index is too high. The WBGT considers sunlight, wind speed, humidity, and other factors that can affect how warm workers feel throughout the day.
For acclimated workers:
- Temperatures below 77°F (25°C) come with a low risk of heat stress.
- Strenuous work can be unsafe when temperatures exceed 77°F (25°C).
For unacclimated workers:
- Temperatures below 70°F (21°C) come with a low risk of heat stress.
- Strenuous work can be unsafe in temperatures ranging from 70 to 77°F (21 to 25°C).
- There is a high risk of heat stroke with strenuous work when temperatures are over 77°F (25°C).
Once the heat index has been identified, the company can reduce employee exposure by shortening the workday, setting up shade, and scheduling physically strenuous activities during the coolest hours of the day, such as the morning, evening, or at night with additional visibility. Everyone should have access to plenty of drinking water, sunscreen, and eye protection to help them see in the glare. Workers can wear protective summer workwear with cooling features and ventilation to help their bodies cool when they start to sweat.
Anyone who works outdoors for long periods in the U.S. is at risk of experiencing symptoms of heat stroke. Stay up to date with the latest regulations and policies as these programs go into effect.