Sometimes the heat makes you vomit, said Carmen Garcia, a farmworker in the San Joaquin Valley of California. She and her husband spent July in the garlic fields, kneeling on the scorched earth as temperatures hovered above 105 degrees. Her husband had such severe fatigue and nausea that he stayed home from work for three days. He drank lime water instead of seeing a doctor because the couple doesn’t have health insurance. “A lot of people have this happen,” Garcia said.
There are no federal standards to protect workers like the Garcias when days become excessively hot. And without bipartisan support from Congress, even with urgent attention from the Biden administration, relief may not come for years.
President Joe Biden in 2021 tasked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration with developing rules to prevent heat injury and illness. But that 46-step process can take more than a decade and might stall if a Republican is elected president in 2024, because the GOP has generally opposed occupational health regulations over the past 20 years. These rules might require employers to provide ample drinking water, breaks, and a cool-down space in shade or air conditioning when temperatures rise above a certain threshold.
On Sept. 7, OSHA will begin meetings with small-business owners to discuss its proposals, including actions that employers would take when temperatures rise to 90 degrees.
As this summer has broken heat records, Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and other members of Congress have pushed legislation that would speed OSHA’s rule-making process. The bill is named after Asunción Valdivia, a farmworker who fell unconscious while picking grapes in California on a 105-degree day in 2004. His son picked him up from the fields, and Valdivia died of heatstroke on the drive home. “Whether on a farm, driving a truck, or working in a warehouse, workers like Asunción keep our country running while enduring some of the most difficult conditions,” Chu said in a July statement urging Congress to pass the bill.
Trade organizations representing business owners have fought the rules, calling the costs of regulations burdensome. They also say there’s a lack of data to justify blanket rules, given variation among workers and workplaces, ranging from fast-food restaurants to farms. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the most powerful lobby groups in Washington, argued that such standards are nonsensical “because each employee experiences heat differently.” Further, the Chamber said, measures such as work-rest cycles “threaten to directly and substantially impair … employees’ productivity and therefore their employer’s economic viability.”
“Many heat-related issues are not the result of agricultural work or employer mismanagement, but instead result from the modern employee lifestyle,” the National Cotton Council wrote in its response to proposed regulations. For example, air conditioning makes it more difficult for people to adapt to a hot environment after being in a cold dwelling or vehicle, it said, noting “younger workers, who are more used to a more sedentary lifestyle, cannot last a day working outside.”
The Forest Resources Association, representing forest landowners, the timber industry, and mills, added that “heat-related illnesses and deaths are not among the most serious occupational hazards facing workers.” They cited numbers from OSHA: The agency documented 789 heat-related hospitalizations and 54 heat-related deaths through investigations and violations from 2018 to 2021.