A U.S. congressman from Texas held a day-long “thirst strike” on Tuesday to push for federal safety standards for those working in extreme heat conditions — an issue that is becoming more prominent amid record-shattering temperatures.
Rep. Greg Casar, a Democrat, spent the day on the steps of the U.S. Capitol refusing to eat, drink water or take breaks from the 30 degrees Celsius heat in Washington, D.C. He also held a vigil for workers who have died from heat-related illnesses while on the job.
The lawmaker, who was joined by several other Democrats throughout the day who pledged their support, said he would only break his strike “when nurses tell me to stop.”
“It’s challenging and it’s hot, but it’s not as hot as it is in Texas,” a sweating Casar told reporters hours into his strike.
Temperatures in Casar’s district, which includes parts of Austin and San Antonio, were expected to top 38 C (100 F) on Tuesday.
This summer has seen countries around the world, including the U.S. and Canada, continuously break heat records. Earlier this month saw the hottest recorded global temperature on back-to-back days, rising to an average 17.01 C on July 3 and then to 17.18 C on July 4 and 5.
In the past 30 days, nearly 5,000 heat and rainfall records have been broken or tied in the U.S. and more than 10,000 records set globally, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Texas cities and towns alone have set 369 daily high-temperature records since June 1.
Last year, the non-profit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen estimated heat exposure is responsible for at least 600 worker fatalities and 170,000 workplace injuries per year on average in the U.S., citing data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and other research.
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The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) puts the number of annual heat-related workplace deaths at 33 between 1992 and 2021, but notes those numbers are “likely vast underestimates.”
This year has already seen some notable cases of outdoor workers dying after prolonged heat exposure, including a United States Postal Service employee in Dallas and a construction worker in San Antonio.
Casar’s thirst strike was launched in protest of a Texas law signed by Gov. Greg Abbott last month that blocks cities from writing local rules that go further than state laws.
The legislation, which will take effect Sept. 1, would strike down local ordinances passed in Austin, Dallas, Houston, and other cities that mandate water and rest breaks for workers during extreme heat events. In 2010 and 2015, Casar helped push for those local protections in Austin and Dallas, respectively, including by holding thirst strikes.
With no state regulations in place that would replace those local laws, critics and workplace safety advocates fear employers will no longer feel the need to ensure their employees have adequate protection from heat exposure and dehydration.
A spokesperson for Abbott’s office told Global News the new legislation ensures the state abides by federal standards set by OSHA “and will not inhibit people from taking water breaks.”
“Ensuring the safety of Texans is a top priority as our state experiences high summer heat,” Andrew Mahaleris said in a statement.
But OSHA does not have a specific policy in place for heat-related worker protection. Rather, it has a general duty clause that requires employers to provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.”
Work is currently underway at OSHA to create a federal standard for occupational heat safety rules, but is not expected to be introduced or enacted this year. The agency is currently convening a panel of businesses, local governments and non-profits to gather feedback on the proposed standard.
Only three states in the U.S. — California, Washington and Minnesota — have specific statewide laws in place that ensure worker protections related to heat.
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Casar and more than 100 other members of Congress have written to Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su calling for “the fastest possible implementation” of a federal workplace heat standard at OSHA that would require adequate hydration, rest breaks, on-site medical services and more safety requirements for workers.
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But that request poses its own challenges. Because Su is serving as labour secretary in an acting capacity — she was nominated by President Joe Biden to the role, but was withdrawn after failing to win adequate support in the Senate — Republicans and some business groups have argued any rules she puts forward should not be recognized.
A request for comment on Casar’s thirst strike and letter to OSHA and the Department of Labor was not immediately returned.
What are the standards in Canada?
While there is no federal standard for heat-related workplace protection in Canada, every province and territory has its own rules in place to ensure employers provide protections for workers when temperatures soar. Employment and Social Development Canada has its own rule for federal workplaces like government offices and airports.
Many of those regulations advise the use of “work/rest schedules” that ensure workers get a certain number of adequate breaks in order to cool down and hydrate. Workers also have the right to refuse to work if they feel their health or safety is at risk by working in extreme heat.
Suzanna Prpic, a senior manager of prevention field services at WorkSafeBC, said the importance of having heat protections in place for workers is critical.
“When thirst starts to set in, it can lead to heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke quite quickly,” she said in an interview.
Outdoor workers at risk of heat exhaustion
She said workers who are unfamiliar with their environment can be more susceptible to heat-related illnesses by not adequately acclimatizing themselves.
“Maybe a new worker working, say, in the (B.C.) Interior grew up in the Lower Mainland. That’s a different environment. So for folks who aren’t used to that working environment, it’s really important to get that acclimatization and to get conditioned.”
As for a heat standard to determine when safety rules should kick in, most provincial and territorial regulations cite the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) Heat Stress Threshold Limit Value guidelines, which take into account the air temperature, humidity, air movement and other factors through a “wet bulb global temperature” formula.
However, those rules also stress that signs of heat-related illness like fatigue, dizziness and internal body temperature should inform whether safety measures should be taken before measuring the heat of the environment, as temperature is not the only factor that may lead to illness.
Prpic said researchers are constantly working to ensure governments and regulators have all the information needed to keep safety standards in line with the changing climate.
As summers get hotter and people become more exposed to extreme heat, she said regulators are also looking at how to keep indoor workplaces well-ventilated and protected, and employers at all levels are taking the issue seriously.
“There’s been incredible cooperation … recognizing the risks and treating heat-related concerns early, because it’s completely preventable,” she said.
Employment and Social Development Canada was not able to immediately provide a statement in response to Global News’ questions on a potential federal heat safety standard.
— With files from Reuters and the Associated Press