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New England workers face extra hazards from heat and few specific workplace protections

Two workers in orange safety vests work with a blue machine in an area where road work is being done.
Jesse Costa/WBUR
Workers in Boston prepare to blast the surface of the asphalt, in a 2022 project to minimize the heat absorbed and increase the heat reflected from the road surface. 

As a heat wave sweeps through New England, many of us are feeling the effects of sweltering weather. But people who work outside, or in hot indoor environments, are particularly at risk for heat illnesses.

Heat is hard on the body. And Francisca Sepulveda, the director of the Immigrant Worker Center at the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, says as summers get hotter, she’s hearing about concerning impacts.

“We've seen a lot of workers going through heat stress,” she said. “They faint, they get heat stroke.”

New England’s increasingly warmer weather, driven by climate change, increases the risk, particularly if there’s no action to reduce the use of fossil fuels.

A 2021 climate assessment for the state of New Hampshire shows that days above 90 degrees could increase dramatically – reaching 50 or 60 per year, under a higher emissions scenario. That’s cut in half in a lower emissions scenario.

Sepulveda says her main concern around climate change is whether workers will have the resources to manage the increasing exposure to heat they’re experiencing. Those resources include personal protective equipment, the flexibility to take a break in the shade, air conditioned spaces, and enough water.

Indoor workers in warehouses, kitchens, laundromats, and food processing facilities can be at the highest risk to that kind of extreme heat, along with outdoor workers in landscaping, roofing, and construction.

Sepulveda says workers should know they have a right to a safe and healthy workplace – including protections from heat. That comes from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s General Duty Clause, which allows that federal agency to enforce safety measures.

“We always say information is power,” she said. “It’s very important that they are aware of what their rights are and that there is help available.”

“We always say information is power. It’s very important that they are aware of what their rights are and that there is help available.”

Sepulveda’s organization in Massachusetts runs a hotline, which workers can call if they need help. It’s at two phone numbers: 617-505-8939 or 617-505-8940.

The National Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health says workers should alert OSHA if they’re facing danger at work by calling 1-800-321-OSHA, or finding their local office.

Heat protections in New England

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, doesn’t have a specific rule that outlines protections for workers with regard to heat, though they’re in the process of developing one. The Administration does do inspections for heat-related hazards

Right now, Sepulveda says, employers are held to a general standard that says they must provide a safe and healthy work environment.

Her organization has pushed for a specific heat stress standard for years, but OSHA standards can take years to finalize. A Government Accountability Office studyfrom 2012 found the Administration’s average time to finish a standard was 7 years – and some standards took up to 19 years.

Some states have their own heat protection standards. California, Oregon, Minnesota and Washington adopted their standards through state-specific OSHA plans. Colorado adopted a standard through the state’s Department of Labor.

State-specific OSHA plans allow states to adopt a variety of health and safety standards that go beyond the federal OSHA rules, using those as a minimum. In New England, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont have plans like that, but none of those include their own heat protection standard.

Al Vega, chief of strategy and engagement with the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, said his organization is pushing leaders in that state to figure out how they can use their plan to implement measures beyond the minimum OSHA standards requiring a safe and healthy workplace.

“There’s now another avenue under which we believe we can start adding things that maybe OSHA currently can’t do, but that you could introduce at a state level,” he said.

He’s also pushing for local ordinances and individual company policies that could protect workers more effectively from heat.

New Hampshire and Rhode Island are the only two New England states that participate in the federal OSHA program instead of having their own state plans. In New Hampshire, there are no specific standards for heat safety, said Ken Merrifield, the Commissioner of New Hampshire’s Department of Labor.

This means compliance rests on employers, and their interpretation of what reasonable protections include.

“While there's no specific temperature index that we would be looking to, we would expect employers to provide personal protective equipment for those working in heat or the sun, access to water and that sort of thing on a very reasonable basis for the employer,” he said.

Several farmworkers in hats that also shade their necks harvest a field of kale under the bright sun.
Jesse Costa / WBUR
A worker tosses a bunch of kale onto a pile on the ground which she has just harvested with other workers in the field at Farmer Dave’s farm in Dracut, Massachusetts.

Data on heat and work-related illness

Heat-related illnesses and deaths are complicated to track. And the “work-relatedness” of those illnesses and deaths can be additionally difficult to determine, said Karla Armenti, who directs the occupational health surveillance program at the University of New Hampshire.

To figure out the rate of workers experiencing heat-related illness, Armenti uses hospital discharge data to track heat-related illnesses, and looks for whether workers’ compensation was the payer in a particular case.

“That’s the only way we know that a case was work-related,” Armenti said. “There’s an underestimation. There’s underreporting.”

It takes a couple of years for a hospital to complete a data set, she said, and smaller hospitals have an especially hard time producing data.

And even accurate hospital data may not give the full picture, said Liu Yang, a research associate with the UNH surveillance program. Getting better data is a big focus for researchers, she said.

“Some people just choose not to go to the hospital. We have no way to track those kinds of cases.”

“Some people just choose not to go to the hospital,” she said. “We have no way to track those kinds of cases.”

In New Hampshire, data based on employers' first reports of injury made to the New Hampshire Department of Labor shows heat exhaustion cases for workers peaked in the early 2000s, with 67 cases in 2005. After 2008, there have been five or less cases each year. Those cases include both private and public sector workers.

Kenneth Merrifield, the Department of Labor’s Commissioner, said that could be a reporting or data issue.

Addressing heat threats

Heat can cause major issues – from heat stroke, which happens when the body’s core temperature gets so high it stops functioning, to chronic heart and kidney problems.

Fire department workers take bottles of water out of a red van in a city park. In the distance, some people sit in the shade.
Dave Wurtzel/Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
In Hartford, Connecticut, fire department cadets hand out water at Barnard Park during the hottest time of day on September 7, 2023. Drinking water is one of the best ways to protect yourself during extreme heat.

Heat can also cause more accidents on the job, as workers’ bodies and minds work less well, said Dave May, a trainer with the OSHA Training Institute Educational Center run by Keene State College.

Heat can accumulate from a variety of sources: air temperature, radiant heat, and even from the movement of muscles within the body, he said.

May started a heat stress training program through the center at Keene State about three years ago. As part of the training, he encourages employers to develop heat plans to protect workers. He says they should start by identifying sources of heat.

The sun is an example of radiant heat, May said. But for workers, the heat created by physical exertion is important, too.

“Workers have this sort of extra hazard associated with heat gain in the body, and that's because they've got this metabolic component to heat,” he said. “They're going up ladders. They're taking materials here and there. They’re working hard on top of a roof.”

Employers should also look at whether their workers are acclimatized to the heat – May says almost 50% of heat exposure deaths occur within the first 3 or 4 days that someone is working in a hot environment.

In addition to finding, documenting and monitoring the heat hazards workers face, employers should ensure their workers have water and places to rest in the shade. And reducing heat where it can be controlled, through air conditioning or fans, is also important, May said.

The National Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health has a list of worker-demanded heat protections, including access to cool-down areas below 82 degrees.

In the past, May’s center has included heat stress in other workplace safety trainings. But May says he’s now started a training dedicated specifically to heat, because he realized concern was growing, and climate change will increase the hazards.

“It’s going to be a continuing issue for us,” he said.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.