Recently, Columbia Journalism Investigations (CJI) and NPR took a look at the statistics surrounding heat-related deaths in the U.S. In the last decade alone, there have been at least 384 reported deaths associated with heat. By analyzing data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, this figure shows that the 3-year average for heat-related worker deaths has nearly doubled since the early 1990s.
CJI and NPR combed through hundreds of documents from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), as well as 2 sets of federal records from the U.S. Labor Department.
Some of the findings are truly shocking:
- OSHA hasn’t adopted a blanket policy for heat safeguards for workers.
- For around a dozen companies analyzed, more than 1 worker was lost due to a heat-related illness or injury.
- Two examples of heat-related deaths occurred after a worker complained numerous times about hot working conditions, then collapsed and died. In another instance, the worker died after spending 10 hours hauling 20 tons of trash.
- Other heat-related deaths happened after the workers weren’t allowed ample shade breaks and/or water. Most of these deaths occurred during the employee’s first week of work. This is probably due to the worker not having experience working in outside conditions and not understanding their body’s signals, coupled with pressure to impress their new employer.
- Often, OSHA doesn’t penalize companies when workers die on the job. On the off chance they do levy penalties, business owners are typically able to reduce their fines and violations through negotiation.
- OSHA’s current system doesn’t always follow up with companies after a workplace fatality caused by heat exposure to ensure that they’ve altered their safety measures or that they’re complying with regulations to prevent such deaths.
- More workers of color die as a result of heat exposure. In terms of the U.S. workforce, Hispanics represent 17% of those working; however, as much as a third of all heat-related deaths are Hispanic workers. Experts think this trend is due to the fact that Hispanics make up the vast majority of workers in industries where heat-related deaths are common (such as agriculture, landscaping and construction).
- Heat-related fatality record-keeping has been so neglected that OSHA has no idea how many people have actually died from heat-related illnesses. Rather than keeping their own meticulous records, OSHA relies on companies to keep records of and report any heat-related deaths they experience. However, not all companies follow this protocol.
Furthermore, CJI and NPR discovered that in many cases where a worker died of heat-related conditions, the day of the death saw unusually high temperatures for the day. In over two-thirds of the instances, the temperature was over 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
According to Ronda McCarthy, Occupational Health Specialist for Concentra in Waco, TX, worker deaths due to heat-related conditions shouldn’t happen because heat illnesses are easily preventable.
Real-world example of heat exposure at work
One of the 384 deaths over the last decade was Cruz Uriah Beltran, a migrant farmworker who traveled from San Luis, AZ to snap tassels off corn stalks in Grand Island, NE for Rivera Agri Inc. On a hot day in July 2018, the thermometer rose to 91 degrees and the humidity pushed the heat index to 100 degrees.
Tragically, Beltran didn’t exit the field at 5 pm with the rest of his crew.
A search and rescue mission began as crews launched 2 helicopters in the hopes of spotting Beltran’s orange safety hat in the stalks of corn, as well as a plane equipped with thermal-imaging equipment. These efforts all failed to locate Beltran.
The next day, temperatures again broke 90 degrees. Around 100 volunteers searched for Beltran and the Red Cross provided a cooling station for those searching. In the afternoon, Beltran was finally located facedown in the corn husks.
During the course of OSHA’s Rivera Agri investigation, they determined that the company failed to use any kind of preventative measures that would have mitigated the chance of worker deaths from heat exposure. OSHA found that contributing factors to Beltran’s death were “moderate lifting and bending” and “pushing and pulling” in addition to the heat.
Rivera Agri’s proposed fines totaled just $11,641, which was ultimately reduced to $9,500 after the company agreed to follow OSHA safety measures.
Since Beltran’s death, Rivera Agri has implemented several safety protocols of their own. For example, the company works with a farmworker-rights group to ensure that all employees are educated on responding to heat emergencies properly. Extra water stations have been placed around the cornfields, as well as shade canopies.
Additionally, supervisors have heat monitors on their phones and detasselers are sent out of the fields when temperatures become too high. Farmworkers are also supplied with brochures about the heat policy on their bus to the fields.
Sadly, while such precautions could possibly have prevented Mr. Beltran’s death, they do nothing to compensate his family for their loss.
No federal heat safety standards, yet
What’s more, OSHA has no federal heat standards despite being well-aware of the dangers of heat—and how they can be prevented—for decades.
In fact, in the early 1970s, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) studied heat stress and its effects on U.S. workers for the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC).
After completing the study, NIOSH developed a heat standard for OSHA. Furthermore, NIOSH refined these standards in 1986 and 2016; however, OSHA has decided against implementing them.
Thankfully, that might be about to change.
OSHA’s current director, James Frederick, has stated he’s made creating a federal heat standard a priority on his regulatory agenda.
Weather-related workers’ compensation in Arizona
Arizona’s workers’ compensation laws are clear in that they generally cover injuries and illnesses related to weather. Most workers who file for workers’ compensation based on a weather-related illness or injury may have to prove that their working conditions or activities combined with the weather were the cause.
In the case of illness or occupational disease, there can be no external factors that led to the disease. In other words, if a worker could have been exposed to the same work hazard away from their job, they may encounter challenges in getting workers’ compensation to cover the illness.
Common work-related heat illnesses
There are 4 main heat-related illnesses that commonly occur in the workplace. They are:
- Heat cramps. Heat cramps occur when you sweat so much that your body becomes salt-deprived. Typically, heat cramps present as painful spasms in your abdomen, arms and/or legs.
- Heat exhaustion. Severe dehydration is the cause of heat exhaustion. When you’re out in the heat for an extended period of time, it’s important to stay hydrated. Water is the preferred way to rehydrate your body, but sports drinks containing electrolytes can also work. Common symptoms of heat exhaustion are lack of sweat, high core body temperature, and a rapid pulse.
- Heat rash. Although heat rash may be the least dangerous of the 4 heat conditions, it also stands as one of the warning signs for the other more serious conditions. Heat rash typically presents as clusters of pimples or blisters around the bends of the arms, at your neck, around your upper chest, as well as the groin area.
- Heatstroke. Heatstroke is the most extreme of the heat-related conditions. It has the same symptoms as heat exhaustion, with the addition of confusion and slurred speech.
Safety tips for working in the heat
Arizonans are no strangers to hot conditions and extreme temperatures that are part of life in the desert. In fact, parts of Arizona have over 120 days a year over 100°F.
Even if you believe you are experienced with the heat, it’s important to remember to take the following precautions:
- Stay hydrated
- Dress for the weather
- Take breaks
If you or a loved one suffer a heat-related work injury, it’s important that you contact an attorney who is experienced in workers’ compensation law to help you file your claim. Workers’ compensation cases tend to be complex and it can be difficult at times to prove eligibility.