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Biden’s Proposal Would Protect 36 Million Workers Facing Extreme Heat on the Job

Labor advocates applauded the plan but warned that federal labor standards for extreme heat are long overdue.

Farmworkers pick beets in a field in the morning mist as southern California is facing a heat wave, in Camarillo, California, on July 3, 2024.

After a televised debate performance last week that left Democrats horrified, President Joe Biden wants voters to know that his administration is taking the climate crisis seriously as summer 2024 brings record-breaking heat waves and extreme weather.

Speaking at an emergency operations center near the Capitol on Tuesday, Biden touted investments in clean energy and resilient infrastructure made on his watch. He also lashed out at the Republicans in Congress who are pushing to roll back his climate agenda. Former President Donald Trump — or “my predecessor,” as Biden calls him — and the GOP are still peddling climate denialism, the president said.

“Everyone who willfully denies the impacts of climate change, who is condemning the American people to a dangerous future, is either really, really dumb, or has some other motive in mind,” Biden said.

Biden also outlined several climate resiliency measures, most notably a new proposal to implement federal protections for 36 million workers facing extreme heat on the job. If finalized, new rules announced by the Labor Department would require employers to develop a plan to prevent heat-related injuries and take proactive safety measure if employees are regularly exposed to a heat index or “feels like” temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit (80°F) or higher.

The proposal is likely meant to stand in contrast to recent moves by Republicans in Florida and Texas to block local governments from enforcing safety standards for workers facing extreme heat on the job. Conservatives and the business lobby have argued such regulations are a burden on employers operating worksites across multiple jurisdictions.

Advocates for labor rights and public health applauded Biden’s announcement as a crucial step toward protecting workers but warned that federal labor standards for extreme heat are long overdue. Juley Fulcher, a worker health and safety advocate at Public Citizen, said her watchdog organization first petitioned for a federal heat protection rule back in 2011, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health originally flagged the issue more than half a century ago.

“If all goes to plan, workers will finally have protective rules in two more years,” Fulcher said in a statement. “That’s a national disgrace and a display of contempt for America’s workers and especially immigrant workers who bear a disproportionate burden of excessive heat.”

Indeed, as Truthout has reported recently, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has long been organizing around labor protections from extreme heat via its Fair Food Program, which The Washington Post called “the strongest set of workplace heat protections in the United States” earlier this year.

Globally, 2023 was the warmest year on record, with 2016 coming in second place. So far 2024 is proving to be a scorcher and has a 61 percent chance of beating 2023 for the warmest year on record. It’s only a few weeks into the summer season, but extreme heat waves have already prompted health warnings in cities across the United States.

In a background call with reporters, a senior administration official said the proposed labor rules reflect existing standards in many parts of the country. For example, employers must provide plenty of drinking water and a cool-down area that workers can access when needed, such as a shaded area for construction workers, or an air-conditioned section of a warehouse.

Job site training and a plan to acclimate new workers to hot conditions are also required if the heat index tops 80°F. If the heat index at a work site exceeds 90°F, then paid rest breaks for 15 minutes every two hours become mandatory, and employers must actively monitor for heat exhaustion.

Heat index is the “feels like” temperature relative to humidity, and employees primarily working inside air-conditioned spaces or taking brief trips outside are not subject to the proposed rules. Instead, the proposed workplace standards focus on employees who are engaged in activities that could raise their core body temperature, according to the senior administration official.

“It’s this aspect of their work, whether they are making deliveries, carrying mail all day, working construction, picking vegetables, repairing power lines, doing landscaping … these are the things that put workers at risk, and these are the populations that the rule is targeting for protection,” the official said.

From 1992 to 2022, 986 workers in the United States died from heat-related injuries on the job, including 334 construction workers, according to an Environmental Protection Agency report released on Tuesday and touted by Biden. From coastal flooding to wildfires and heat waves in U.S. cities, the report tracks multiple “climate indicators” and concludes that climate change is increasingly affecting “people’s health, society, and ecosystems in numerous ways.”

On Tuesday, the president also said he will host a summit with experts at the White House this summer to discuss extreme heat and urged the media to get the word out about the proposed heat protections for workers. Biden stressed that federal investments to prevent flooding and other climate disasters benefit both red states and blue states, but climate denial among Republicans puts the nation in danger.

Meanwhile, a meltdown among aids and campaign staff over Biden’s recent debate performance reportedly continued behind the scenes at the White House. Democrats widely view last week’s debate between Trump and Biden on CNN as a campaign disaster. However, Biden appeared relatively confident on Tuesday as he delivered prepared remarks on the proposed labor protections and other federal responses to extreme weather. The president appeared to muffle or mix up a few words, but was much easier to understand than during last week’s debate against Trump.

Biden’s backers have long complained that the administration’s positive accomplishments do not get enough attention in the press, but after last week’s debate, eyes are now on Biden’s every move. Whether Biden can direct this renewed attention toward his administration’s efforts around climate change and other national challenges remains to be seen.

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