By Juley Fulcher, Public Citizen
Asunción Valdivia came to America on July 24, 2004, to join his family. The family reunion was abruptly cut short five days later, when Asunción died. After a 10-hour workday picking grapes in the 105 degree sun, he collapsed in a field from heatstroke. Instead of calling an ambulance, the crew’s boss told his son, Luis, to drive Asunción home. In the car, Asunción began foaming at the mouth and then went limp. Luis immediately headed to the closest hospital. But by the time they reached their destination, it was too late. Asunción had died.
Asunción’s story is one of many involving workers fatally succumbing to heat. From 1992 to 2017, heat killed 815 workers and seriously injured more than 70,000 in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The actual numbers are almost certainly far higher, as heat-related health harms often go undiagnosed or underreported.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) doesn’t have specific regulations focused on heat stress. Instead it relies on a general requirement for employers to provide a safe working environment. To make matters worse, inspections related to heat dropped 49% during Trump’s first two years in office.
In July of 2019, the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act (H.R. 3668), was introduced in Congress by U.S. Reps. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Alma Adams (D-N.C.) and members of the U.S. House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee to prevent heat from claiming more lives. The legislation directs OSHA to write a rule protecting workers from heat stress. The bill currently has 74 co-sponsors.
“Even as the climate crisis sends temperatures soaring, Trump’s OSHA has refused to take action to protect workers from excessive heat,” said Public Citizen President Robert Weissman. “If this administration is unwilling to act because it insists on denying climate reality, if it refuses to do anything to protect immigrant workers, or if it’s so committed to an insane antiregulatory zealotry that it refuses to act, then this Congress must act.” As record-breaking summer temperatures become the norm – 19 of the hottest 20 years on record have occurred since 2001 – workers are at increased risk for heat illnesses. May 2020 was the hottest May on record, and this summer is expected to be a scorcher. “This problem will get much worse very quickly because of the climate emergency,” said David Arkush, managing director of Public Citizen’s Climate Program. “Our most vulnerable and often undocumented workers are at the highest risk of being injured by heat. We need to protect them right away.”
The key elements of a heat protection plan are simple: workers must have access to enough water and be able to take rest breaks in the shade or a cooler area. The hotter the day and the more strenuous the work, the more water and rest breaks are required.
Although workers in agriculture and construction are at highest risk of heat-related injury, the problem affects all workers exposed to heat, including drivers, letter carriers, sanitation workers, healthcare workers covered in full personal protection equipment (PPE), and those working in warehouses, factories, or any other indoor location without adequate climate control. As we’ve recently become particularly aware, many of these are the very workers most essential to keeping our nation functioning.
Excessive heat can cause heat stroke and even death if not treated properly. In a world with COVID-19, heat stress can be a dangerous complicating factor. Those most susceptible to heat stress illness and death are the same ones most susceptible to severe illness from the coronavirus — people over 65 and people with heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, and obesity.
The Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act’s (H.R. 3668) is a great step in our fight to secure protections for workers.
Now is the time to use our voices to force Congress to act on this issue and pass H.R. 3668. Tell your member of Congress to support this common-sense worker protection legislation. Take action HERE.