Heat stress is a complicated subject because of different environments and how they affect individual workers.
Photo credit: Creative Commons/Flickr user I Make America.

It’s no longer a question: Summer temperatures in the U.S. are rising, and the heat is clearly taking its toll.

There are more than 67,000 heat-related emergency room visits each year, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. On the job, there were 344 worker deaths in the U.S. attributed to heat exposure in 2011-2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The true number could be far higher because such deaths could be under- or misreported.

These grim facts are among the reasons attorneys general in California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania moved in February to protect working people from the dangers of rising temperatures by asking the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue an emergency temporary heat standard.

“[E]xtreme workplace heat poses a grave danger to the health and safety of tens of millions of outdoor and indoor workers in our states and across the nation,” they wrote, declaring that “an emergency temporary standard is necessary to abate and protect workers from the grave danger of extreme workplace heat.”

The urgent action is needed, the attorneys general argued, because while federal regulators are trying to come up with a permanent heat standard — with input from unions including the IBEW — it could take years. This “[leaves] millions of outdoor and indoor workers exposed to dangerous levels of heat in the interim,” they said.

Former IBEW Safety Director David Mullen, who retired on June 2, has been one of the people working on defining that standard, part of a committee that’s been tasked with developing the American National Standards Institute’s draft A10.50 Heat Stress Standard, which aims to address basic concerns such as acclimatizing workers to heat, assessing risk, action-level triggers, emergency action plans and training.

“Heat stress is a complicated subject, especially for our linemen, because different environments throughout the country and how they affect each individual makes it very difficult to write a blanket standard,” Mullen said.

For many members of the IBEW — especially those who work in the union’s southern portions — high outdoor temperatures can be the norm almost every day of the year, not just in summer, Mullen added.

“Coming up with a baseline standard at least gives us a step to build on,” he said. “Our challenge is also coming up with a standard that’s simple and enforceable.”

There are 75 voting members on the ANSI committee, with 17 representing unions. “We’re at the table with the AFL-CIO and the Building Trades, doing our best to make sure that discussions don’t get into standards that can affect employment status,” he said. “There’s enough stuff now that results in people losing their jobs already.”

A draft of the proposed A10.50 standard goes to the full ANSI committee soon, with a possible vote early next year, Mullen said. But, considering the document’s complexity — not to mention the inevitable resistance from the industries that will be affected by the new standard — an OSHA heat standard could take up to 10 years to get finalized. “It’s a long road,” he said.

Meanwhile, 27 states and territories have taken more immediate action on their own to protect workers from heat-related issues. For example, last year in Oregon, officials rolled out a mandate to provide workers with shade, breaks and water when temperatures climb above 80, and longer breaks along with increased monitoring and person-to-person check-ins when it gets above 90. California and Washington state have enacted similar policies.

Editor’s Note: Read Director Mullen’s “Transitions” story in the June edition of The Electrical Worker.