New rules addressing extreme heat could mean better air-conditioning and more breaks for millions of workers

Construction workers wipe faces in front of digital sign showing temperature is 103 degrees.
An outdoor thermometer registers 103 degrees as Duke Lewton, left, and Kyle Jukes pause to wipe sweat while installing a fiber optic cable in Omaha, Neb., Monday, July 23, 2012.
  • As the climate has heated up, deaths from extreme temperatures have increased.
  • A federal heat standard could require employers to provide more and better air conditioning.
  • Biden's announcement comes after he was urged to act by unions and Democratic lawmakers.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

The Biden administration announced Monday that it is beginning work on a new workplace regulation to address safety during extreme heat events, a process that will likely take years to move through the slow-churning federal bureaucracy, but could eventually impact millions of people who must work in increasingly high temperatures.

In practical terms, a federal heat workplace standard - as sought for years now by organized labor and Democratic legislators - could change day-to-day life for people who work not just outside, on farms and on construction sites, but in warehouses shipping goods for online shoppers. Employers could be required to offer more shade and more air conditioning, as well as additional breaks and opportunities to hydrate.

Since 2010, at least 384 people have died from extreme heat exposure on the job, according to a recent report by NPR and Columbia Journalism Investigations. Over the past 30 years, the rate of heat-related worker deaths has doubled.

It's only getting worse. This summer was the hottest on record, and it was lethal. At a farm in Oregon, Sebastian Francisco Perez, a 38-year-old migrant worker who had just come from Guatemala, was found lying in a field, motionless, at the end of his shift. It was 107 degrees that day.

Despite the rising death toll, there is currently no federal regulation that deals specifically with threats to worker safety posed by heat. In October, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will initiate a process that aims to change that.

"Rising temperatures pose an imminent threat to millions of American workers exposed to the elements," President Joe Biden said in a statement announcing an "all-of-government effort to protect workers" and others from extreme heat.

At OSHA, that means accepting public comment on the standards it ought to impose on employers, such as what steps they should take to acclimate workers to heat and monitor their exposure.

Elizabeth Strater, an organizer with United Farm Workers, welcomed the news. But she cautioned that it "could be years until meaningful protections are in place." UFW has been calling on state and federal leaders to take immediate, emergency action.

People "are out there working and dying in the heat, right now," she said.

Person holding phone showing photo of deceased worker.
A worker, who declined to be named, looks at a photo of Sebastian Francisco Perez who died last weekend while working in an extreme heat wave, Thursday, July 1, 2021, near St. Paul, Ore.

Rules could impact indoor workplaces, too

It's not just those working outside who could be impacted by federal efforts. In an August letter to the US Department of Labor, a dozen Democratic senators noted that workers at Amazon warehouses had complained of intense heat and a lack of cooling fans.

At a fulfillment center in Seattle this past summer, one worker claimed the indoor temperature was around 90 degrees.

Sen. Alex Padilla, a Democrat from California, and Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, earlier this year introduced legislation calling for a federal heat standard, naming it after a farm worker, AsunciĆ³n Valdivia, who collapsed after working in 105-degree heat - his employer refusing to call an ambulance. That's the sort of incident that could be addressed by a federal requirement to monitor employees' for heat-related illnesses.

Padilla, in a statement to Insider, said he was happy to see the administration act.

"We must address the rising health risks of extreme heat in the workplace - particularly for low-income communities and communities of color who are bearing the brunt of this climate crisis," he said.

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