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Working in the Heat

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I am so not happy to have my Oregon time include another of these insane heat waves. Good times. But my work is in air-conditioned archives or wherever else I want to work during the summer. No real pain for me. A lot of us are like that. But a lot of us are not. Workers laboring in these heat waves need serious protection. They are not getting that protection. This is unacceptable. Somewhat surprising, it was Politico who went down this road to discuss the issue.

There is no federal standard protecting people like Medina from heat, which killed 815 workers between 1992 and 2017 and seriously injured 70,000 more, according to federal records. More heat deaths are likely in the coming years as climate change turbocharges temperatures to make heat waves even hotter and last longer. The Western U.S. suffered from punishing temperatures this summer, rising higher than they normally would so early in the season. The record-breaking temperatures in the Pacific Northwest would have been “virtually impossible without human-caused climate change,” according to modeling and global observations.

The heat wave in June killed more than 80 people in Oregon alone. Three of them were workers, including a middle-aged trainee at a Walmart distribution center who collapsed toward the end of his shift after stumbling and having difficulty speaking. The death toll prompted the state to issue emergency worker protections, with Democratic Gov. Kate Brown saying she was “concerned that our record-breaking heat wave” was “a harbinger of what’s to come.”

But the Occupational Safety and Health Administration responsible for protecting laborers from workplace hazards has ignored three recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that it create a much-needed floor, a temperature level above which conditions are deemed inherently unsafe for worker safety. OSHA has also denied similar petitions from occupational and environmental groups.

A four-month investigation by POLITICO and E&E News found that the agency’s reluctance has extended through nine administrations, with bureaucracy and lack of political will combining to continually kick the can down the road.

Even as recently as the Obama administration, policymakers rejected calls that OSHA set an enforceable standard. The Obama White House was concerned that a rule would take too long to write for an understaffed and underfunded OSHA, and would become a target for Republicans eager to paint President Barack Obama as a regulatory zealot, recalls David Michaels, who headed OSHA at the time.

Now, however, he thinks it should be done.

This is the Obama administration in a nutshell, afraid that it would alienate Republicans who already were ready to revolt against the sheer existence of a Democratic president, not to mention a Black guy in the office. In any case, there are any number of ways in which we have absolutely not even begun to deal with climate change. The impact on workers is most certainly one of those. We have to take this very seriously and set real safety standards for workers in the hell we have created out of the planet’s climate.

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