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Biden announces heat rules as climate-related deaths rise

By Ariel Wittenberg | 07/02/2024 06:22 AM EDT

The regulations would be the first federal rules to protect workers from dangerous temperatures. But Donald Trump might be president before they take effect.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday announced the first-ever federal rule to protect workers from extreme heat, amid a sweltering summer that many scientists expect to be one of the hottest ever recorded.

The long-awaited regulation, which covers an estimated 35 million workers, won’t be final until at least 2026 — midway through what could be former President Donald Trump’s second term in the White House. But Biden used the rule to hammer home the climate and pro-labor agenda that has been a major theme of his presidency, in a departure from days of fallout about his shaky performance during last week’s debate.

“Extreme weather events drive home a point I’ve been saying for so long: Ignoring climate change is deadly, dangerous and irresponsible,” Biden said in the District of Columbia’s Emergency Operations Center, with a map of heat across the United States behind him.

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In an earlier discussion with reporters, a senior administration official said: “The purpose of this rule is simple: to significantly reduce the number of injuries, illnesses and deaths suffered by workers subject to excessive heat while simply doing their jobs.”

The proposal marks a milestone for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which for decades ignored calls to implement heat safety regulations as high temperatures killed an estimated 815 workers between 1992 and 2017 and seriously injured some 70,000 more, according to federal estimates.

Climate change has turbocharged extreme heat, with temperature records already being smashed this summer in New England, leading to a spike in emergency room visits and killing a in Rhode Island last week.

But the regulation faces an uncertain future. Trump has pledged to roll back portions of Biden’s climate change agenda while casting doubt on the scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels is driving up global temperatures. That could leave the heat rules in the hands of voters in the November election.

The Trump campaign did not respond to questions about whether he would support a federal heat-safety regulation. But Republicans are already slamming Biden’s proposal.

“If Joe Biden cared about the environment, he would stop jetting his wife across the country and lighting money on fire to bolster his flailing campaign that has him losing in his own internal polls,” Republican National Committee Chair Michael Whatley said.

The proposal would require employers to implement simple safety measures that could save workers’ lives, such as providing water and a cool place to rest once combined heat and humidity levels reach 80 degrees. Employers would also be required to ease new workers into hot jobs to help their bodies adjust.

When combined heat and humidity reach 90 degrees, the proposal requires 15-minute paid rest breaks for all employees after two hours, and supervisors would be required to periodically check in on laborers who are working alone.

The proposed requirements are the same for employees who work indoors or outdoors and is expected to affect a large variety of workplaces, from farm fields to warehouses to kitchens.

“We believe these will be achievable for employers and will protect workers and that they will save a significant number of lives,” said the administration official.

Many of the proposed requirements dovetail with recommendations from .

Just five states have their own heat protections for workers, though some cover only outdoor laborers. Texas and Florida recently passed laws blocking municipalities from requiring water and rest breaks for workers.

Until now, OSHA’s efforts to protect workers was limited to issuing optional guidance that urged employers to provide water, rest and shade for some laborers. OSHA has the ability to issue citations when extreme heat leads to injuries or death under current requirements that employers keep workers safe from “recognized hazards.” But such citations are rare and are often only issued after workers have died of heat exposure.

Addressing the effects of heat on workers has been a priority for OSHA under the Biden administration’s “whole of government approach” to climate change.

The agency first began work on the heat rulemaking in September 2021, at Biden’s direction, after a heat dome over the Pacific Northwest killed 80 people in Oregon.

Last summer, OSHA stepped up heat-related inspections under an “emphasis” program that targets workplaces before deaths or heat-related injuries have occurred. Those inspections were still hampered by having to rely on the general duty clause, rather than an enforceable regulation.

Worker advocates celebrated the proposal Tuesday.

“I’m absolutely thrilled,” said Juley Fulcher of Public Citizen, a consumer rights advocacy group. “It sounds comprehensive, like they are covering all of their bases.”

Teresa Romero, president of United Farm Workers, called the proposal “a bittersweet moment,” noting that many laborers have died of heat exposure in the decades since advocates began asking for protections.

“Today, the federal government put itself on the right side of history by seeking, for the first time, to establish the precedent that every worker in America has the right to shade, water and rest while working in temperatures that could kill them,” she said.