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Proposed federal rule could offer protection from extreme heat to millions of workers

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The White House announced a proposed rule this week to protect workers across the country from heat.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It wouldn't take effect for a year or more, but the move comes in a record-breaking summer of extreme temperatures.

FADEL: Alejandra Borunda from NPR's Climate Desk is here to explain what's in the proposal. Alejandra, good morning.

ALEJANDRA BORUNDA, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So what would this proposed rule do to help workers?

BORUNDA: It would do several things, starting with requiring employers to come up with plans to deal with heat. Like, what do they do if someone gets sick? Where can people go to cool down? The second big thing - it gives workers some rights to water, shade and breaks when it's hot. The water and shade requirements kick in above 80 degrees on the heat index. That's the feels-like temperature. Then, when it gets to 90, workers would get paid rest breaks, and employers would have to make sure workers aren't getting sick from heat.

FADEL: OK. Seems pretty straightforward.

BORUNDA: Yeah. David Michaels is an epidemiologist at George Washington University and a former director of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, or OSHA. He puts it this way.

DAVID MICHAELS: This is a commonsense proposal.

BORUNDA: Many employers take steps like these already, and the science is really clear that these kinds of interventions help keep workers safe.

FADEL: So who would be protected under this rule?

BORUNDA: Yeah, more than 35 million people, who work both outdoors and indoors. That includes agricultural and construction workers and also people in warehouses and restaurants. Researchers know that heat is hurting and even killing workers, like postal worker Eugene Gates Jr, who died from heatstroke while delivering mail last summer in Dallas. And the Department of Labor estimates that there have been about 34,000 injuries caused by heat in the past 10 years alone, and probably many more. Worker advocates, they've been asking for federal heat rules since the 1970s, but climate change is now making summers hotter, and that's really increasing the urgency here.

FADEL: You know, I'm listening to you, and I'm kind of surprised that water and breaks aren't something that are already required. Are there any protections in place now?

BORUNDA: I know, and there's not really at the national level. OSHA has something called the General Duty Clause, which requires safe workplaces, and sometimes that has been used for heat, but it's rare, and only five states have any heat protections for workers, including Oregon and California. Kristina Dahl is a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

KRISTINA DAHL: If you don't work in one of those states and you're exposed to the heat, then you are at the mercy of your employer.

BORUNDA: And recently, Florida and Texas have actually blocked local jurisdictions from writing their own heat rules. They've been concerned that patchworks of rules are hard for employers and said if heat is such a problem, OSHA should make clear rules that apply to everybody. So OSHA is giving them a rule.

FADEL: So typically, a rule like this takes a while to come to fruition. We're in an election year. Will this rule even be implemented if the administration changes?

BORUNDA: It could take well over a year or longer, or, under a different administration, it could stall or be pulled entirely. So at this point, up next is a public comment period and then a lot of administrative steps, but overall, it's moving much more quickly than a normal OSHA rule, which takes, on average, seven years. Michaels says that signals it's a high priority.

MICHAELS: I've never seen a major OSHA proposal go through White House clearance as quickly as this proposal did.

BORUNDA: Meanwhile, millions of workers are living through another blisteringly hot summer.

FADEL: That's Alejandra Borunda, with NPR's Climate Desk. Thank you, Alejandra.

BORUNDA: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alejandra Borunda
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.