Nebraska and much of the western United States have been struck with sweltering temperatures this week. The hot weather serves to remind me that there is still no federal standard for workplace heat exposure.
NBC ran a story earlier this week that updated and explained efforts to create a national standard for heat exposure in the workplace. The Department of Labor, through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, can implement such a rule. Some states, like California, have implemented rules about heat exposure in the workplace. The California rule seems like it codifies common sense about water breaks and shade.
Heat exposure and workers compensation
Nebraska does not have a heat exposure rule like California. However Nebraska workers compensation law covers heat-related injuries. At the very least, workers’ compensation provides some baseline level of regulation for employers when it comes to heat. But compensation in workers’ compensation cases is limited and no amount of money can replace the life of a family member. Additionally, some heat-related injuries like heart attacks have tougher causation standard which make it more difficult for workers or their dependent family members from recovering benefits.
The advantage of an OSHA rule for heat exposure is that means that OSHA can sanction and shame employers who violate the rule.
Workplace heat exposure and climate change
Climate change is expected to raise summer temperatures in Lincoln, Nebraska by 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050 and by 11 degrees by 2100. Heat will be an even larger occupational risk than it is today. Chicago experienced a heat wave in 1995 that killed 749 people. This little remembered natural disaster could be a precursor for more heat-related health problems and deaths in the future. One argument against a national heat standard is that it doesn’t account for “regional variations” in climate. But if climate scientists are correct, most if not all, areas of the United States will be at real risk for heat-related injuries and illnesses in the future. OSHA and Congress should take action to protect workers.