When heat kills: Record temperatures in U.S. cause worker deaths

Construction worker water break

It’s summer again in southwestern Pennsylvania and we all know what that means - we can expect heat and humidity. This week the National Weather Service issued a possible hazardous weather outlook for central Pennsylvania and said heat index values could reach 100 degrees on Friday for central and western PA.

On a national level, heat has taken its toll in 2016. Already this year, the deaths of two construction workers in Missouri are being blamed on triple digit heat and five Arizona hikers died in June due to record-breaking temperatures.

A recent analysis of statistics from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) indicates that we’re not becoming acclimated to such high temperatures.

On average, since 2003, OSHA reports 30 deaths per year due to heat exposure – a handful of which have occurred in Pennsylvania – and thousands more have fallen ill. The majority of these deaths have occurred within the first four days on the job.

National temperatures have been trending upward over the last two decades. Seven of the ten warmest years on record have occurred since 1998.

Though we’re only a few weeks into summer, OSHA has already begun investigating several heat related on-the-job fatalities, including the two in Missouri.

According to In These Times, a publication focused on workers’ rights and safety, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, David Michaels said:

“Heat can kill. And it is especially tragic when someone dies of heat exposure because they’re simply doing their job. We see cases like this every year and every one of them is preventable.”

While these deaths are preventable, regulators have yet to make a sweeping move.

Some states, such as California and Washington, have laws in place that require protective action to be taken when temperatures reach certain thresholds.

For example, in 2005 California became the first state to adopt rules requiring water, shade and rest breaks for those working outside, when temperatures exceed 85 degrees.

There aren’t any any similar federal standards to regulate workplace practices in response to incremental increases in temperature.

OSHA does require employers to “protect workers from excessive heat” by providing workers with water, rest and shade and by allowing new workers to acclimate to heat slowly with frequent breaks but doesn’t attach certain requirements to exact temperature increases.

And it seems those general requirements have more bark than bite.

OSHA has limitations on what it can fine employers for violations of any kind – including keeping workers on the job in dangerous heat, In These Times reports.

A recently published CPR report found that for fatality investigations opened and closed between 2009 and 2016, OSHA’s median penalty was $5,800, which CPR points out is “less than the cost of an average funeral.”

Employers often negotiate lower penalties than OSHA initially assesses.

Though the median penalty is low, OSHA can levy penalties up to $7,000 for serious violations and up to $70,000 for willful violations.

Christopher Reed is a PublicSource reporting intern. Reach him at creed@publicsource.org.