by Rachel McIntosh-Kastrinsky
If you’ve been outside at all in the past few weeks, you’ve probably noticed that it’s brutally hot out. We are in the midst of a record-breaking heatwave, and just experienced the hottest June on record. We can expect future heatwaves to be longer and more intense as the climate crisis worsens.
Extreme heatwaves expose many North Carolina workers to unsafe working conditions. For people working in fields under a scorching sun, on construction sites surrounded by vehicle exhaust, or in unventilated factories and warehouses, excessive heat in the workplace can trigger life-threatening heat stress conditions, including heat stroke. And while climate continues to amplify this hazard, U.S. workers lack any basic protections against dangerous heat in their workplace.
That’s why Medical Advocates for Healthy Air recently joined with the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, American Public Health Association, and nearly 100 other organizations spanning the labor, environment, public health, community, and faith sectors in support of the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, or HR 3668. The proposed legislation directs the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue a standard on the prevention of excessive heat in the workplace for outdoor and indoor workers.
Deadly Working Conditions
Excessive heat can exacerbate a variety of existing health problems such as asthma, kidney failure, and heart disease. Small children, the elderly, and certain other groups including people with chronic diseases, low-income populations, and outdoor workers have a higher risk for heat-related illness.
The most serious heat-related disorder is heat stroke, which occurs when the body becomes unable to control its own temperature. As body temperature rapidly rises the sweating mechanism fails, leaving the body unable to cool itself down. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not given.
While many people try to avoid the heat during the day by seeking shelter with air conditioning, outdoor workers and certain indoor workers do not always have that option. And even for people able to avoid the daytime heat, shifting outdoor activities to the night is becoming less effective; as our climate changes, nighttime temperatures are not decreasing as much as they used to.
Protecting Workers, Saving Lives
North Carolina has one of the highest heat-related death rates in the U.S., with particularly high rates in Eastern and rural North Carolina. It is essential that vulnerable populations in our state, such as outdoor workers, are able to take action to reduce their heat exposure when it becomes dangerously hot out. However, the U.S. does not have a federal heat stress safety standard for workers.
The Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act would address this gap. The Act would protect workers by ensuring they have access to water, rest and shade, or a cool environment during periods of extreme heat. These common-sense safety measures will save lives in North Carolina and around the U.S. as the climate crisis continues.