Farmworker fixes an irrigation pipe in a cornfield at the Bowles Farming Company in Los Banos

The U.S. will develop a federal heat standard for the first time. Here’s what advocates and labor experts want

The White House announcement last week of a blueprint to address working conditions for laborers in extreme heat was seen widely as a critical first step in developing national rules around heat stress in the workplace, which has killed hundreds of people in the last decade.

Heat is the leading weather-related killer in the U.S. The federal proposal prioritizes establishing a first-ever federal heat standard — a widely accepted temperature or series of conditions under which employees would be required to stop working for their safety.

This standard does exist in a select few states — California, Washington, Minnesota and Oregon — that have spent years developing policies around how hot is too hot to work, and around loopholes that exist in certain industries such as agriculture and construction. Advocates and labor experts hope they serve as a guide to what a federal heat standard, which would help protect workers in states without their own rules, could become.

The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will be responsible for setting enforcement standards to hold employers accountable to these standards. The Biden administration — which has made responding to climate impact a priority in its early policy proposals — is also pushing OSHA to increase workplace inspections and education on heat illness.

The United Farmworker Foundation, the largest farmworker-led union in the country, applauded the White House’s action, but warned developing the rules could take years.

READ MORE: Farmworkers are dying in extreme heat. Few standards exist to protect them

Elizabeth Strater, spokeswoman for the union, told the PBS NewsHour the union expects the rule-making process to include those “intimately familiar” with heat exposure, and hoped that working groups did not include “a whole bunch of economic policy distracting conversation.”

Developing federal heat standards are about one thing, she said: “What does it take to keep workers from dying?”

Enforcement concerns

Heat has been tied to 783 deaths and nearly 70,000 injuries across the country between 1992 and 2016 according to federal data analyzed by Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, — but for years the threat has been hard to measure because heat-related deaths are often misclassified or undercounted.

While advocates agree that the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is the correct agency to be handling enforcement, the agency has drawn criticism around how it responds to complaints and holding employers accountable, including on issues directly related to COVID-19 response like lack of inspections and enforcement of COVID-19 safety measures. Not enough staffing within the agency is also viewed as a problem, advocates say.

Inspections will target high-risk industries, like agriculture and construction, and prioritize employers with heat complaints, Jim Frederick, OSHA’s Acting Assistant Secretary wrote in an emailed statement to the PBS NewsHour. He added the agency will also prioritize outreach to workers and employers to provide resources on working in extreme heat. He did not address concerns about OSHA’s ability to staff increased enforcement, or criticism over enforcement of existing rules.

Strenuous activity outdoors can be a danger at temperatures beginning at 80 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. Farmworkers must make precise, intricate movements while picking crops and transporting them to bins — often bending low for long periods of time and carrying heavy loads. Under this plan, OSHA would be responsible for enforcing this standard through increased inspections, especially on days that are above 80 degrees. It would also create a heat illness work group that would include members of affected industries.

READ MORE: We don’t know exactly how many people are dying from heat — here’s why

To do this, OSHA has to increase its capacity to enforce the rules, said Ana Padilla, executive director of the University of California, Merced, Community and Labor Center — including hiring more staff to avoid redirecting resources from one enforcement mechanism to the other.

“In concept, it’s a great idea, but are the resources going to be there to increase the number of inspectors enforcing rules?” she said.

Padilla also said the agency is in need of modernizing how workers can report incidents at work, especially those who don’t speak fluent English or speak Indigenous languages.

Shefali Milczarek-Desai, director of the Workers’ Rights Clinic at the University of Arizona, said one way to grow capacity is more collaboration between OSHA and the state agencies responsible for enforcing safe work environments. While she is confident in the development process of the federal heat standards, “my bigger concern is making sure that employers and workers understand what it is that has to be done and that there’s enforcement mechanisms so that employers know that they can’t get away with not enforcing those standards.”

There remains a significant amount of work to be done on creating a relationship of trust with workers, said Iris Figueroa, director of economic and environment justice at Farmworker Justice, a group that advocates for farmworkers’ rights. Figueroa said trust among workers has been tainted by the lack of enforcement and fears of deportation and retaliation. Partnering with trusted organizations could help OSHA strengthen its trust, she added.

The announcement mentions urging Congress to pass funding bills for the Build Back Better plan, and notes that there are billions of dollars in funding related to heat going to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but it’s unclear how much additional enforcement resources will cost, and where that money will exactly come from.

Concern for undocumented workers

Advocates for farmworkers say while the attention from the White House on heat protections is critical, it also runs the risk of clashing with policies that protect undocumented workers from falling into immigration-related enforcement. Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, a women-led farmworker justice group, raised concern over the involvement of the Department of Homeland Security in enforcing federal heat standards, “given the well-documented history of human rights abuses and civil rights violations by DHS, its components, and its private contractors.”

The organization said in a statement it would oppose any efforts to expand immigration enforcement and detention operations as part of any rule-making process around heat standards.

The United States Department of Agriculture estimates nearly 50 percent of agriculture workers are undocumented, and another 25 percent are migrants with visas or work authorization.

The proposed plan notes that undocumented people often work in industries affected by extreme heat, but it’s unclear how the adminstration plans to ensure workers that they can report incidents to their employer without fear of subsequent deportation.

Strater, of the UFW, said being undocumented is a “preexisting condition” many workers contend with when it comes to reporting workplace hazards.

“You’re so vulnerable to exploitation,” she said. “Even a rule that is in place, you’re still vulnerable because you’re not truly about to speak up.”

Questions over health, climate change

Researchers have found that people who are undocumented don’t always have easy access to healthcare and may be reluctant to seek it out — even in emergencies — because of language barriers, fear of deportation or living under tight control by employers.

Alongside policy changes, accessible healthcare is a necessity to sufficiently protect workers from heat, said Nicolas Lopez-Galvez, a public health researcher at San Diego State University who studies farmworkers’ health conditions. He said the ideal way to protect workers would be monitoring their health throughout their work days.

He cautioned that a “one-size-fits-all” standard may not properly protect workers in different regions of the country. Some people may be more acclimated to extreme heat or have preexisting conditions, like heart disease, that put them at a higher-risk in lower temperatures.

The issue of heat illness doesn’t always stay in the workplace, since workers may return to homes that are not adequately cooled — weatherizing homes through Low Income Energy Assistance Program grants and utilizing schools as cooling shelters is something the Biden administration also said it planned to address.

“There are agricultural workers who go to work, get paid at piece rate, and the faster you work, the faster you fill up barrels, the more you get paid. It’s in direct conflict with what you’re supposed to do if you’re experiencing a potential heat illness,” Padilla said. “Then, the worker goes home, and they have a residence where they don’t have access to a cooling system or maybe they don’t have electricity, so they don’t have access to a fan or a cooling system.”

And when income is tied to productivity, people will lose wages on days the heat stops them from work. Michelle Tigchelaar, a climate scientist at Stanford University, said income needs to be supplemented when it is lost to extreme weather days. Researchers say basing wages off of productivity often pushes workers to continue working in unsafe conditions because they can’t afford not to.

“There are so many reasons why certain parts of our population are much more vulnerable to extreme heat,” Tigchelaar said. “Integrating these heat efforts with broader investments in access to health care, education and economic opportunities for vulnerable populations will do a lot to reduce that vulnerability overall.”

What’s next?

Advocates hope a heat standard can be put into place before summer temperatures return in 2022. In his statement, Frederick, of OSHA, said the agency will begin seeking input from workers in high-risk industries in the coming weeks.

Lopez-Galvez, of San Diego State University, said while the announcement from the White House felt “generic,” the way it will be implemented will be telling. He’s hopeful increased data collection will help bring better understanding of heat stress among outdoor workers, but stresses that the bigger problem at hand is climate change.

“All of this is trying to fix a problem after it’s been happening,” Lopez-Galvez said. Temperatures will continue to rise, he added — the question is what we’ll do about it.