Biden administration seeks to protect Americans from extreme heat

The number of high heat days is projected to increase significantly due to climate change.
The number of high heat days is projected to increase significantly due to climate change.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US President Joe Biden on Monday (Sept 21) ordered his administration to find ways to ensure people are protected from extreme heat, including through work-related rules and other cooling efforts.

The order comes as public health and environmental groups have put pressure on the administration to create enforceable standards for outdoor workers exposed to extreme heat, at a time when the number of high heat days is projected to increase significantly due to climate change.

Excessive heat in the Pacific Northwest this summer led to hundreds of deaths and thousands of emergency room visits for heat-related illnesses, the administration said.

Essential outdoor jobs in sectors like agriculture, construction and delivery services are the most exposed to extreme heat, and are disproportionately held by people of colour, the administration said in a statement.

"Rising temperatures pose an imminent threat to millions of American workers exposed to the elements, to kids in schools without air-conditioning, to seniors in nursing homes without cooling resources, and particularly to disadvantaged communities," Biden said in a statement.

Various federal government departments and agencies are being tapped to help provide cooling assistance to homes and neighbourhoods and ensure safe working conditions, Biden said.

The Department of Labour's Occupational Safety and Health Administration will develop a process to create a workplace heat standard. The department will enforce the standard in part through workplace inspections on days when the temperature exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius).

The administration also directed the Department of Health and Human Services to expand a program that provides home energy assistance to low-income Americans to allow for purchases of air-conditioning units and to establish cooling centres.

The Environmental Protection Agency is coordinating the development of neighbourhood cooling centres at public school facilities.

Farm workers in California and the Pacific Northwest worked in extreme heat this summer resulting in fatalities, according to advocates.

The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), which represents the agriculture industry, cautioned the Biden administration against enacting "one-size fits all" regulations.

"We urge (OSHA) to recognise individual health needs and regional differences in weather," said Allison Crittenden, director of congressional relations for AFBF, in a statement.

Worker advocates worry the announcement signals a prolonged regulatory process, even as workers continue to face deadly heat.

"It could be a really long time before anything substantive is actually in place, enforceable and in the fields," said Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for United Farm Workers labour union. "I really hope we see some of the level of urgency that we feel. Our communities have had too many funerals this year."