Heatwaves are killing workers on the job. The government needs to set new rules for employers before more Americans needlessly die.

A man wipes sweat from his face in sweltering heat.
A man wipes sweat from his face in sweltering heat. Getty
  • Extreme heat is a public health crisis, just like the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Essential workers and communities of color are put at higher risk for heat-related illness and lack protections, just as they have during the pandemic.
  • While emissions need to be cut, the present impacts of heat on people need to be addressed with changes to regulations and infrastructure.
  • Abdullah Shihipar is a writer who covers public health, class, and race.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

The heatwave that swept across the West Coast of the US over the past month brought temperatures of over 110 degrees to the West coast and resulted in devastating consequences – mostly notably causing more than 200 deaths.

Among those that died were many workers, forced to work through the brutal heat. One of those people who died was 51-year-old Kenton Scott Krupp, a worker at the Walmart distribution center in Hermiston, Oregon.

According to the New York Times, Krupp worked in a hot trailer with only a fan to circulate air, and prior to the end of his shift he found it hard to speak and walk.

Two days after Krupp’s death, Sebastian Francisco Perez, a migrant farm worker from Guatemala, died from heat-related causes working on an apple orchard. These deaths expose the terrible conditions workers face while trying to earn a living.

Just like the COVID-19 crisis, workers were left to fend for themselves during the extreme heat – especially among low-income and minority communities. We were foolish not to tackle the pandemic early enough, and we can’t afford to ignore that mistake when it comes to the all but guaranteed heatwaves of the future.

Heat warning

Upon prolonged exposure to extreme temperatures, people can develop heat exhaustion which can lead to headaches, dizziness, nausea and other debilitating symptoms. More seriously, one can develop heatstroke and begin to fall unconscious – which if left untreated, can lead to death. From making asthma worse, to making mental health worse, extreme heat can do untold damage to our bodies. Multiply this at a population level and you’ve got a seasonal public health crisis.

Between 1992 and 2017, 815 workers died from heat related causes and more than 70,000 were injured. New research published recently has suggested that this number may be a significant undercount. Farm workers working all day, outdoors, and with little to shade them are the most at risk. Statistics collected by the CDC from 1992 through 2006 show that US farm workers face a rate of death from heatstroke that is 20 times higher than other workers. During this heat, many workers have started their days under the cover of darkness at 2 or 3 AM.

Recognizing the danger the heat posed to farm workers, the United Farm Workers and other organizations have consistently called for regulations to protect workers from the heat. These include providing breaks, water, access to shade and training on how to recognize heat stroke symptoms. On July 6, Oregon’s governor directed the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) to enact emergency rules that would protect workers from the heat. Washington instituted similar emergency rules days later. These changes are necessary, but they only came after workers died.

Farm workers may be the most at risk, but other workers have been harmed by the brutal heat. Last month, workers walked off the job at restaurants across the country because of overheated working conditions .

These stories make it clear that workers – from construction workers, to line cooks, to warehouse workers – need a national standard to mitigate the risk for heat stroke across our rapidly warming country.

But instead of being proactive, the lack of a unified response to this public health crisis is similar to how the federal government approached the pandemic. Farmworkers and line cooks were also at higher risk for contracting and dying from COVID and workers across industries were abandoned without any proper protections. When President Biden took office, he promised an emergency temporary standard that would address COVID. When a regulation was finally issued, it only covered healthcare workers.

When we’re talking about health, we can’t ignore the role that our living environments play. With COVID, communities of color across the country saw higher rates of the disease, as a lot of this spread was tied to work. People would have to work in person and come home, often to multigenerational homes, increasing the spread of the virus.It’s a similar case for heat related illness. In 1995, when a blistering heatwave hit Chicago, most of the dead were low-income and Black residents of the city who lived in apartments that did not have air conditioning. 25 years later, there isn’t much that’s changed.

According to statistics collected by the federal government over a decade ago, nearly 18% of households below the poverty line do not have any form of air conditioning at all and about 30% of households use window units or “room air conditioning” compared to central A/C. Of course, even if one has an air conditioner,using it can cause electric bills to increase significantly, meaning some may have units but can’t afford to use them. Extreme heat is especially a concern during the pandemic, when people may feel that it’s unsafe to use communal public cooling centers.

Of course, it’s not just A/C. Low-income Black and Latinx communities are located in areas that are less likely to have tree cover, and as a result, are more likely to be heat islands that attract heat – a legacy of racist redlining housing policies.

All of this results in the same disparities that we saw with COVID. Data from California shows that emergency room visits for heat-related illnesses increased for all groups between 2005 and 2015, but mostly increased for African Americans (67%), Hispanics (63%), Asian Americans (53%), as compared to white Americans (27%). Data collected by the CDC shows that compared to US citizens, immigrants have nearly three times the risk of dying from a heat related illness.

So what do we do about it? In most states, there are no regulations that require a landlord to provide air conditioning to renters – requiring that landlords provide cooling like they do heat is an easy start. Some rightfully point out that A/C uses a lot of energy and thereby contributes to the climate crisis, this is undoubtedly true but cooling is a necessity, not a luxury.

Of course, we can take steps to make neighborhoods cooler – by planting more trees and greenery to create more shade, by retrofitting homes and apartment buildings with rooftop gardens or reflective roofing, and by using solar panels. This could all be done with the Civilian Climate Corps that has been proposed by the Biden administration

We could also deal with future heatwaves like we do the pandemic. Declare a public health emergency and ask people to stay home when they can, close businesses and mandate heat leave pay, and offer transportation to cooling centers. For those still working essential jobs, provide heat hazard pay and labor protections.

Currently, California is one of the few states that have labor protections for heat built into law – the others being Minnesota and Washington. Despite attempts in Congress over the past few years to do so, there are no federal labor standards that address heat. There is currently a bill in Congress sponsored by Reps Judy Chu, Bobby Scott, Raúl M. Grijalva, and Alma Adams that would direct OSHA to issue a federal standard on heat.

None of this is a substitute for real climate action of course; but while we need to take necessary and immediate action to drop emissions, we also need to deal with the present public health consequences of our failure to take action earlier.