Santos Brizuela labored outdoors for more than two decades, despite heatstroke while cutting sugar cane in Mexico and chronic laryngitis from repeated exposure to the scorching sun while doing various other jobs. He still perseveres.
But he hit his limit last summer when he was working on a construction crew in Las Vegas. Immediately his head ached from exposure to the sun. He lost a lot of his appetite.
Brizuela, 47, now works maintenance and can rest. Leaflets were taped to the wall with best practices for staying healthy — a protection he hadn’t had before.
“Sometimes, as a worker, you ask your employer for protection or health and safety-related needs, but they don’t listen or follow,” he said in Spanish through a translator.
A historic heatwave began to hit the American Southwest and beyond this summer, drawing attention to one of the worst yet least addressed impacts of climate change in the United States: the rising toll of people working in extreme heat, whether In warehouses and kitchens, or outside in the hot sun. Many of them are immigrants working low-wage jobs.
State and federal governments have long implemented federal procedures for addressing the environmental risks exacerbated by climate change—namely, droughts, floods, and wildfires. But state and federal protections from extreme heat are generally lagging behind “no owner,” said Ladd Keith, assistant professor of planning at Arizona State University.
“In some ways, we have a long way to go to bridge the governance gap in terms of seeing heat as a real climate hazard,” Keith said.
There are no federal heating standards in the United States, despite President Joe Biden’s administration’s ongoing push to develop federal heating standards. Most of the hottest states in the U.S. also currently have no specific standards for high temperatures.
Instead, workers exposed to extreme heat in many states are ostensibly protected by so-called “general duty clauses,” which require employers to mitigate risks that could result in serious injury or death. The provision allows state authorities to inspect workplaces for violations, and many countries do so, but there are no consistent benchmarks for determining what constitutes a serious heat hazard.
“It’s not always clear what’s unsafe,” said Juanita Constible, a senior advocate at the National Resources Defense Council who tracks extreme heat policy. “Without specific heating standards, it’s more difficult for regulators to decide ‘OK, is this employer breaking the law.'”
Many states are adopting their own versions of the federal “focus” program, with increased checks to ensure employers provide water, shade and breaks, but subpoenas and enforcement must still go through the general liability clause.
Extreme heat is notably absent from the list of hazards FEMA can respond to. While regional floodplain managers are common across the country, there are only three newly created “chief thermal officer” positions in Miami-Dade counties, Phoenix and Los Angeles to coordinate extreme heat planning.
Federal experts have recommended extreme heat protection since 1972, but it wasn’t until 1997 and 2006 that Minnesota and California adopted statewide protections for the first time. These states have long been exceptions, joined by only a handful of other states in the early 2000s.
But as the heat wave got longer and hotter, the tides began to shift.
“There are a lot of positive moves that give me some hope,” Keith said.
Colorado last year strengthened existing rules that require regular breaks and meals in extreme heat and cold and provide breaks for drinking water and shade when temperatures reach 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26.7 degrees Celsius). Washington state last month updated its 15-year-old thermal safety standards to lower temperatures that require cooling and other protection. Oregon adopted a temporary heat protection rule in 2021 and made it permanent last year.
Several other states are considering similar laws or regulations.
Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs recently announced new rules through the Heat Focus Plan and declared a state of emergency for extreme heat, allowing the state to reimburse various government entities for funds spent on heat mitigation.
Nevada has also adopted a version of the heat stress plan. But a separate bill that would define what constitutes extreme heat and require employers to provide protection ultimately failed in the final month of the legislative session.
Even after the temperature threshold for these protections was raised from 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) to 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.5 degrees Celsius), the measure faltered. Democratic lawmakers in Nevada are now trying to get those protections through the regulatory process by next summer.
New regulations introduced by the Biden administration in 2021 will establish heat safety standards and strengthen the protections needed for most high-risk private-sector workers, but the regulations are likely to take several years to review. A group of Democratic U.S. lawmakers introduced a bill last month that would effectively speed up the process by passing legislative heating standards.
The guidance will apply to all 50 states, including private sector and some federal workers, but most other public sector workers will not be affected. States are different and federal laws can be implemented differently, so consistent state standards are critical, Constable said.
Currently, protections for these workers depend largely on the decisions of individual employers.
Eleazar Castellanos, a nonprofit that supports immigrants and low-wage workers, trains workers for extreme heat at Arriba Las Vegas, Las Vegas. In his 20 years working in construction, he said, he has experienced two types of employers.
“The first version is employers making sure their workers do have access to water, shade and rest,” he said in Spanish through a translator. “The second type of employer is the one that threatens workers with consequences for demanding such precautions.”
The heat protection law has faced opposition from industry, including the chamber of commerce and other business associations. They said it would be too difficult to enforce a blanket order across such a wide range of industries.
“We’ve always been concerned about a one-size-fits-all bill like this,” Tray Abney, a lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business, told Nevada lawmakers.
Opinions are divided on why the Nevada bill failed after passing the Senate along party lines. Some say it’s a victim of partisan politics. Others say there are too many bills vying for attention in the four-month session held every other year.
“It’s all about the dollar,” said Vince Saavedra, secretary and lobbyist for the construction industry in southern Nevada. “But I would challenge anyone to go out and work with these people and tell me we don’t need these rules.”
Stern is a member of the Associated Press/American State House News Initiative reporting team. America Report sends reporters to local newsrooms across the country to cover issues that are not being covered. Follow Stern on Twitter: @gabester326.