Public Citizen Fights for Worker Heat Protections
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. The crew’s boss told Luis to drive his father 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 has killed 815 workers and seriously injured more than 70,000 in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet the actual numbers are most likely even higher, as heat-related health issues often go undiagnosed or underreported. To make matters worse, U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) 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), named after Asunción Valdivia, 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 develop national protections for workers exposed to high heat.
The key elements of a heat protection plan are simple: workers must have access to water and must be able to take shaded rest breaks.
“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 works, or if it’s so committed to an insane antiregulatory zealotry that it refuses to act, then this Congress must act.”
May 2020 was the hottest May on record and this summer is expected to be a scorcher.As record-breaking summer temperatures become the norm – 18 of the hottest 19 years on record have occurred since 2001 – workers are at increased risk for heat illnesses. According to Public Citizen research, during the July 4, 2018, holiday week, an average of 2.2 million construction and farm workers labored in extreme heat each day.
Although workers in agriculture and construction are at highest risk of heat-related injury, the problem affects all workers exposed to heat, including drivers and indoor workers without climate-controlled environments. Excessive heat can cause heat stroke and even death if not treated properly. It also exacerbates existing health problems like asthma, kidney failure and heart disease. In a world with COVID-19, heat stress can be a dangerous complicating factor.
Public Citizen and other groups launched a national campaign in 2016 to pressure the government to protect workers. On July 17, 2018, Public Citizen, in partnership with United Farm Workers, Farmworker Justice and a network of more than 130 labor, environment and public health organizations petitioned OSHA to establish a federal protections for workers exposed to excessive heat. The campaign also is designed to raise awareness about the impacts of the climate crisis and rising temperatures on the health and safety of workers.
“This problem will get much worse very quickly because of global warming,” 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 Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act’s (H.R. 3668) introduction into Congress is a great first step, but only the beginning of our fight to secure protections for workers.
We now need 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, and take action at https://bit.ly/2Gkmckh.