Feds propose high heat work standards




State House News Service

Published: 07-08-2024 9:23 AM

The federal government has proposed the first national safety standard meant to keep workers safe from excessive heat in the workplace and made $1 billion available to hundreds of projects – including 30 in Massachusetts – that try to mitigate climate threats including extreme heat.

The federal action comes as Massachusetts is starting to prepare for average temperatures that are near-certain to rise in coming decades, as well as increased frequency and severity of natural events like floods, wildfires and heat waves. Extreme heat also diminishes air quality and can pose health dangers, particularly for older adults, children and people with chronic health conditions.

Average summertime temperatures in Massachusetts will feel like those in Maryland in 2050, North Carolina in 2070, and Georgia in 2090, the Healey administration said last year. Hot days will feel even hotter as humidity rises too, potentially causing “significant consequences for human and ecosystem health, as human populations and ecosystems in Massachusetts are not adapted or accustomed to these temperatures,” the administration said.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration released a proposal Tuesday to require employers to develop injury and illness prevention plans, evaluate heat risks and protect new workers who are unaccustomed to working in the heat. Employers will also have to make time for drinking water and rest breaks and control indoor heat when the risk to workers is elevated.

The rule will be open for public comment before being finalized.

“Workers all over the country are passing out, suffering heat stroke and dying from heat exposure from just doing their jobs, and something must be done to protect them,” Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Doug Parker said.

OSHA’s rule is aimed at helping about 36 million workers in indoor and outdoor work settings. Construction and farm workers, utility workers, mail and package delivery people and landscapers can all face extreme heat outside, and warehouse workers, manufacturing facility employees, bakers and cooks, and laundry workers can face similar heat dangers indoors.

California, Colorado, Oregon, Minnesota and Washington are the only states with workplace standards for heat exposure, according to OSHA. The agency said the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded 479 worker deaths from exposure to environmental heat in the U.S. from 2011-2022, an average of 40 deaths each year, and that time period also saw an estimated 33,890 work-related heat injuries that resulted in days away from work. OSHA called those estimates “likely vast underestimates.”

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The updated Statewide Hazard Mitigation and Climate Adaptation Plan the Healey administration released in the fall identified high heat among the three most significant hazards to Massachusetts along with flooding from precipitation and coastal flooding from sea level rise.

“This is the year that changed everything. We saw frosts, floods, extreme heat, and fires devastate our communities,” Climate Chief Melissa Hoffer said in October. “These weather events are only expected to increase.”

One initiative the report identified to deal with the threat of extreme heat involves the Executive Office of Health and Human Services coordinating a multiagency effort to develop and implement a new “heat flag system” to effectively communicate heat risk to the public, and for other parts of state government to make more shaded areas and cooling structures available.

When the Senate passed its climate and energy bill last week, senators adopted an amendment from New Bedford Sen. Mark Montigny that would require the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities and Department of Public Health to study the idea of applying for cooling assistance funding as part of the state’s application for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which traditionally has supplied Bay Staters with home heating assistance.

The study would have to consider the number of households that could qualify for cooling assistance, the potential health impacts of offering cooling assistance and whether offering cooling assistance would impact the ability of the state to offer heating assistance. The amendment was adopted without discussion.

Also last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced nearly $1 billion in awards for 656 projects across the country to help communities protect against disasters and natural hazards. Of those projects, 12 are getting about $13 million total to mitigate the effects of extreme heat, including things like shaded bus stops.

“Given the growing risks posed by extreme heat impacts, FEMA encourages more States, Tribes and territories to apply for extreme heat projects during future grant cycles,” the agency said.

There are 30 Massachusetts projects that FEMA lists as having been “identified for further review” through the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program. The agency said that designation “does not automatically imply that an award will be made,” but instead that the project “is selected and there is available funding under the applicable subtotals.”

Another 13 Massachusetts projects were not selected in this funding round, FEMA said, and six projects were deemed not to meet the program’s requirements for funding.