It will only get worse. The average number of days spent working in unsafe conditions will double by mid-century and triple by the end of the century according to a University of Washington paper. Washington is one of only four states that have specific rules to protect workers from heat-related illnesses. Some states have passed laws requiring state agencies to develop heat standards for workers, but they haven't come into effect yet. There is no federal standard for working in the heat.
Federal labor law requires employers to ensure safe and healthful working conditions. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is part of the Department of Labor to enforce that standard, occasionally rolls out rules to protect workers from specific threats. In 1983, OSHA required employers to inform workers about how to avoid exposure to toxic chemicals on the job. In June of last year, OSHA released emergency rules designed to protect health care workers from Covid-19, despite opposition from the Labor Department.
In the wake of the hottest US summer on record, OSHA initiated a rule-making process to develop a workplace heat standard that could eventually bring the rest of the United States in line with Washington and its West Coast peers. OSHA said humidity should be taken into account in setting the threshold. The federal process takes a long time. According to a 2012 US Government Accountability Office study, it can take as long as 19 years for new safety and health standards to be implemented.
Many advocates say that it's too little, too late because of the current heat stress for workers. In a report released in June, the advocacy group Public Citizen urged the Biden OSHA to release emergency rules to protect workers.
Such a move is vulnerable to legal challenge due to the conservative turn of federal courts. The current judiciary wouldn't allow OSHA to issue an emergency standard for heat, according to David Michaels, the OSHA administrator under Barack Obama. Unless Congress intervenes and passes legislation that lets OSHA move faster, it will take several years for the agency to issue a standard.
A group of US senators cosponsored a bill that would require OSHA to come up with a final standard for occupational exposure to excessive heat within three and a half years of it being signed into law. The bill was named after a California farmworker who died of heatstroke after picking grapes for 10 straight hours in 105 degree temperatures. His employer ordered his son to drive Mr. Valdivia home. He died while he was on his way to his house.