US President Joe Biden has announced a series of measures to help protect workers from the effects of extreme heat as people across the United States struggle to cope with blazing temperatures.
The White House said on Thursday that Washington would step up heat safety violation inspections in key industries, such as construction and agriculture.
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The Biden administration also said it would put a so-called “Hazard Alert” system in place to make employers aware of what they should be doing to help their workers stay cool, and ensure workers are aware of their rights.
“I don’t think anyone can ignore the impact of climate change any more,” Biden said during a news conference, pointing to historic flooding, droughts, hurricanes and increasingly devastating wildfires that have hit across the US.
“And record temperatures – and I mean record – are now affecting more than 100 million Americans,” he said, adding that “the number one weather-related killer is heat”.
Tune in as I announce additional actions to protect communities from extreme heat. https://t.co/poxF5DlWRS
— President Biden (@POTUS) July 27, 2023
Despite the newly announced measures, the US does not have a federal heat standard that requires employers to institute measures to keep workers safe above certain temperatures.
Protections for workers such as guaranteed breaks and access to shade and cool water vary by state and are generally sparse.
Workers’ rights groups have pushed for the establishment of a federal standard, as the White House noted on Thursday that extreme heat has killed more than 400 workers since 2011 and results in thousands of hospitalisations each year.
Outdoor workers with jobs involving physical labour can be more vulnerable, especially when paired with limited protections.
But efforts to bolster regulations have faced pushback from powerful business interests in sectors, such as agriculture, who have rejected calls for enhanced rules and enforcement.
And some US states have moved in the opposite direction: Republican lawmakers in the state of Texas, where the Bureau of Labor Statistics says 42 workers died from extreme heat between 2011 and 2021, recently banned municipalities from requiring employers to provide workers with shade and water.
“Despite being pretty simple, these rules are very controversial and generate a lot of pushback,” Antonio De Loera, a spokesperson for the United Farmworkers Union (UFW), told Al Jazeera. “These questions can be life-or-death for workers.”
UFW and other groups say that even in US states that have set up protections, such as California, enforcement efforts often are not strong enough to guarantee workers’ rights.
“Farmworkers will still be told they can’t take a break or that they should drink out of an irrigation hose,” De Loera said. “Even in a state like California with good laws on the books, workers are afraid of speaking up.”
Such questions have become more urgent as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of heatwaves.
Earlier this week, more than 100 members of Congress, led by Democratic Representatives Greg Casar and Sylvia Garcia of Texas and Judy Chu of California, called on the Biden administration to implement the new heat standard for outdoor workers as quickly as possible.
“We know extreme weather events such as heat waves are becoming more frequent and more dangerous due to climate change. Urgent action is needed to prevent more deaths,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter on Monday.
According to the National Weather Service, nearly 40 percent of the US population is currently under heat advisories.
In the city of Phoenix in the western state of Arizona, temperatures have surpassed 43.3 Celsius (110 Fahrenheit) for at least 27 consecutive days, surpassing a previous record in place since the 1970s.
And water temperatures near the tip of Florida exceeded 37.8 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit) for two consecutive days this week, setting what could be a world record for the hottest seawater temperature ever measured.
The Biden administration’s announcement also included a $7m investment in weather forecasting abilities and $152m for water storage and climate resilience in the western states of Colorado, California, and Washington.
Biden, speaking at the White House, also said that the US Forest Service will award $1bn in grants to help towns and cities plant trees to repel heat.