Feeling the heat? Biden’s proposed protections for workers are a welcome start.

As the United States enters what has been one of its hottest months of the year, the Biden administration on Tuesday took a significant step in protecting an estimated thirty-six million workers nationwide from extreme heat. This long-awaited move—for workers, companies, and advocates alike—was paired with the announcement of new research from the US Environmental Protection Agency and new investment through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Building Resilience Infrastructure and Communities program.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has proposed new federal regulations to protect workers. When the heat index reaches or exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit, employers would be required to monitor workers and provide water and rest areas. At 90 degrees Fahrenheit, more protections kick in, including mandatory fifteen-minute rest breaks every two hours and monitoring employees for signs of heat-related illnesses.

Heat-related illnesses have been recognized as occupational hazards for a decade, with an estimated 2,300 workers in the United States dying from extreme heat exposure last year alone. However, this number is likely an undercount and does not capture the many more who suffered nonlethal or chronic heat-related illnesses, as well as workers who injured themselves on the job due to the heat. For instance, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles found that workers in California are up to 9 percent more likely to suffer a workplace injury on days with temperatures over 90 degrees Fahrenheit than on days that are between 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. This is a problem that will only get worse. The summer is only a few weeks underway in the Northern Hemisphere, and already more than one hundred million US residents have been exposed to extreme heat.

What comes next?

Despite the need for action, OSHA’s proposal will have significant opponents. Industry groups are gearing up for battle, arguing that the rule will be both administratively cumbersome and costly. This is a sentiment that some political leaders have already embraced. Earlier this year, both Florida and Texas enacted state-wide bans to prevent localities from instituting their own worker-protection ordinances. Both state governments are unlikely to accept OSHA’s proposal without protest. In fact, despite the persistent threat of extreme heat, only five states have extreme heat worker protections: California, Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington.  

The argument that extreme heat worker protections will come at a cost often ignores the very real cost of maintaining the status quo under dangerously high temperatures. Aside from the price that workers pay with their health, extreme heat in the workplace has significant economic impacts, from lost labor productivity to healthcare costs. The high and growing price of extreme heat on US residents’ lives and livelihoods illustrates not only that this new rule is necessary, but also that, on its own, it is not enough.

Since 2021, the Biden administration has worked to reestablish the role of the United States as a leader in the fight against climate change, both domestically and abroad. This new rule could help cement the United States’ leadership role on climate—but only if it is properly enforced and expanded upon. For the rule to be effective, the administration should continue significantly utilizing OSHA’s National Emphasis Program for Outdoor and Indoor Heat-Related Hazards, which gives it latitude to direct resources toward both employer education on heat safety protocols and inspections that will better ensure compliance.

The Biden administration should also leverage existing funds to ensure that workers remain safe even when they head home for the day. As temperatures rise across the United States and the world, workplace regulations alone will not be enough to adequately protect workers. Federal agencies should incentivize states to direct Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funding toward cooling assistance in vulnerable households, and lawmakers should ensure that LIHEAP is funded adequately to cover energy needs during both the summer and winter months. Currently, only approximately 5 percent of LIHEAP’s four billion dollars in funding goes to cooling assistance (heating receives ten times as much), despite the accelerating demand for relief from high nighttime temperatures that place a significant burden on the human body, and which can lead to heat exhaustion while on the job.  

Ultimately however, this issue cannot be solved at the federal level alone. It also requires efforts at the state and local level to ensure that the most vulnerable communities and individuals are being identified and solutions tailored to local contexts are being implemented. The appointment of a Chief Heat Officer (CHO), at the city, county, or state level, is one tool that can address the local challenges of extreme heat. Local governments such as Miami-Dade County, Phoenix, and Los Angeles have already taken this approach. Local climate leaders—like CHOs—are well positioned to work closely with their communities to tailor solutions to meet their specific needs and to create a unified response to build resilience to extreme heat both during the workday and off the clock.

Catherine Wallace is the associate director of strategic partnerships and advocacy for the extreme heat resilience pillar of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht–Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (Arsht-Rock).

Owen Gow is the deputy director for the extreme heat resilience pillar at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht–Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (Arsht-Rock).

Further reading

Image: US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on extreme heat conditions, as he stands with Department of Labor Acting Secretary Julie Su, Administrator Deanne Criswell, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Administrator Dr. Rick Spinrad, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), at the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, in Washington, U.S. July 27, 2023. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.