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U.S. Department of Labor proposes new protections for workers in extreme heat

Alabama workers might soon enjoy additional protections from extreme heat thanks to new rules proposed by the Department of Labor.

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On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed new rules meant to protect workers from extreme heat on the jobsite.

In the press release announcing the proposal, Julie Su, the acting Secretary of Labor, said “every worker should come home safe and healthy at the end of the day” and framed the proposal as another of the Biden administration’s pro-worker policies.

Su continued: “As the most pro-worker administration in history, we are committed to ensuring that those doing difficult work in some of our economy’s most critical sectors are valued and kept safe in the workplace.”

Assistant secretary for occupational safety and health Doug Parker called the proposal an “important next step in the process to receive public input to craft a ‘win-win’ final rule that protects workers while being practical and workable for employers.”

In recent years, more and more workers have died as a result of extreme heat on the jobsite. According to the latest Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 43 workers died because of environmental heat in 2022, an almost 20 percent increase over 2021.

The number of heat waves every year has also dramatically increased in recent decades. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States has gone from having fewer than five heat waves every year in the 2000s to more than six every year in the 2020s. Heat wave duration and intensity have similarly increased.

The Department of Labor’s proposed regulation would require employers to develop plans for extreme heat, identify heat hazards, and follow two sets of guidelines at different heat indexes.

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At a heat index of 80°F, workers would need to be provided drinking water, cooled break areas, any necessary rest breaks. At a heat index of 90°F, workers would have to take mandatory 15 minute breaks every two hours and be observed for signs of heat-related illness.

OSHA published a fact sheet with more specifics alongside the announcement.

Many Alabama workers, while at less risk than workers in states like the oft scorching Arizona, have been adversely affected by environmental heat while working and seem likely to benefit from these new regulations.

In July 2023, an 33 year old employee of Huntsville company SJ&L General Contractor LLC died of heatstroke while forming concrete curbs. The Department of Labor fined the company $16,131 in February.

Joel Batiz, OSHA’s Birmingham office director, said that “had the employer ensured access to shade and rest in this brutal heat, this worker might not have lost their life and would have been able to end their shift safely.”

Several labor unions released statements praising the proposed rule. Brian Renfroe, the president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, said NALC “fully supports implementation of this proposed rule.” Several NALC locals represent USPS employees in Alabama.

However, employers have frequently opposed expanding worker protections. Similar state-level legislation in New Jersey was harshly criticized by pro-business organization. Florida Gov. DeSantis even signed legislation banning local heat protections this year.

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The proposed rules will now enter a sixty day public comment period before OSHA begins developing the final rule.

Chance Phillips is a reporting intern at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected].

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