The US government will develop national rules to protect workers from extreme heat, part of a series of initiatives announced by the Biden administration on Monday morning to address the growing health risk posed by climate change.
“As with other weather events, extreme heat is gaining in frequency and ferocity due to climate change, threatening communities across the country,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “My administration will not leave Americans to face this threat alone.”
Extreme heat is now the leading weather-related killer in the US — and this summer revealed how unprepared the country is for the emerging threat. Hundreds of people died in June from a record-shattering heatwave that battered the Pacific Northwest, a region where many people don’t have air conditioning. A team of scientists found that the brutal heat wave would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change.
More recently, heat was the biggest killer in New Orleans following Hurricane Ida, which left the city without power for days. Ten of the fourteen local deaths caused by the storm were due to heat, a number experts say is sure to be an undercount of the true toll.
In the absence of federal heat rules, workers have been especially vulnerable to extreme heat. At least 384 workers have died from environmental heat exposure across the US in the past decade, according to reporting by NPR and Columbia Journalism Investigations. And only a handful of states have tried to fill the gap, with Oregon and Washington establishing temporary heat standards just this year.
Climate activists celebrated the long-awaited change, which will begin with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration launching the process to develop a federal heat standard for workers.
"We know that even in 2021 workers are dying on the job as a result of extreme heat exposure, in large part because of a lack of standards to protect them," Rachel Licker, a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told BuzzFeed News. "This initiative would fill a really, really critical regulatory gap."
OSHA will also boost heat-related enforcement of companies, conducting more workplace inspections on days when the heat index exceeds 80 degrees and dedicating “additional resources to responding to heat-related complaints,” according to a White House fact sheet released Monday.
“I’m particularly excited that OSHA will take immediate steps to improve heat safety for workers,” Juanita Constible, a climate health advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told BuzzFeed News by email. “Developing a strong, enforceable occupational heat standard could take years. But we saw this summer that workers can’t wait; they need protection now.”
The new government-related heat efforts will expand beyond the workplace, too.
One way communities can help those without air conditioning in the midst of a sweltering heat wave is to provide public places where people can cool off, also known as "cooling centers." Using stimulus money, the Environmental Protection Agency will now be offering technical support to communities to convert schools into cooling centers during heat waves.
Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security announced it will be launching multiple competitions aimed at boosting the nation’s resilience to climate change.
“The first competition in this series will focus on new ways to protect people at risk of heat-related illnesses or death during extreme heats or in connection with other disasters,” the fact sheet said.
Constible commended the new initiatives as a good first step. "The package has a good emphasis on equity," she said, "but it’s clear that congressional action will be needed to get us beyond just better understanding the problem to solutions that communities can use."