New York, N.Y. — A coalition of six attorneys general led by New York Attorney General Letitia James sent comments yesterday to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) calling for federal regulations to protect workers from heat-related occupational hazards. Extreme heat already poses a serious threat to workers, especially in low-income communities, communities of color, and Tribal and Indigenous communities, and heat waves are set to become more frequent and intense as the climate crisis continues. Authorities (including OSHA) agree that heat-related deaths are significantly underreported due to inadequate reporting requirements and lack of protections for employees who do report unsafe conditions. The letter urges OSHA to adopt a federal heat standard, which would create specific temperature thresholds at which different limits on work are imposed, and proposes specific resources and metrics for developing the standard. The AGs also urge the agency to expand reporting requirements, to increase its workplace inspection program, and to require employers to implement measures that prevent workers from overheating, such as mandatory water breaks and increased temperature monitoring.
The comments break down specific heat-related occupational hazards, which include immediate health risks from working in extreme heat, such as heat stroke, and long-term effects of repeated exposure to extreme heat, such as chronic kidney disease. The AGs emphasize that low-income communities, communities of color, and Tribal and Indigenous communities are most vulnerable to these hazards, due to converging environmental and public health factors, including: higher likelihood of pre-existing health conditions, lower access to air conditioning at home, greater risk of occupational hazards, higher exposure to poor air quality, and inequitable policies that lead to problems such as heat islands.
The comments also explain the regulatory and legislative steps that different states and government agencies have taken to protect workers from extreme heat. The AGs argue that, though these measures have made an impact and can guide the development of federal regulations, “without national heat standards, millions of outdoor and indoor workers across the country will remain vulnerable to illness and death from occupational heat exposure.”
“Attorneys general have played an important role in both responding to the climate crisis and protecting workers’ rights,” said Bethany Davis Noll, Executive Director of the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center. “With this comment letter, not only are these AGs urging the federal government to protect workers from this pressing climate threat, but they are also paving the way for future enforcement at this crucial intersection of labor and climate work.”
“Workers throughout the country are on the frontlines of the biggest crises happening today, and must face increasingly unsafe and often deadly working conditions as a result,” said Attorney General James in a statement. “As extreme heat events only get more severe and more frequent, it is long past time for OSHA to set strict, enforceable national standards that respond to the grave consequences of escalating heat in the workplace. Every worker deserves a safe work environment, and my office will continue the fight to prioritize the health and wellbeing of working New Yorkers.”
Background — On October 27, OSHA issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking seeking information on how to best prevent or reduce heat-related workplace injury and illnesses. OSHA has previously released guidance on heat-related hazards in the workplace.
The attorneys general of California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania joined AG James in filing yesterday’s comments.
About the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center:
The State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at NYU School of Law is a nonpartisan academic center at NYU School of Law. The Center is dedicated to working towards a healthy and safe environment, guided by inclusive and equitable principles. The Center studies and supports the work of state attorneys general (AGs) in defending, enforcing, and promoting strong laws and policies in the areas of climate, environmental justice, environmental protection, and clean energy.