Workers exposed to extreme heat have few protections | ET REALITY


Anthony Soto, a 22-year-old baggage claim employee at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, collapsed to the ground near gate C15 after a seizure last October that he attributed to hot interior conditions and strenuous lifting. In Record heat in Texas Last summer, Mr. Soto, who has epilepsy, had four more seizures that left him speechless and his body unresponsive, he said.

His blue button-down shirt was stained with sweat on a recent sweltering day as the temperature once again approached 105 degrees. Working in such heat “makes us feel unwanted, worthless and unworthy,” she said. “The only thing that matters is how long it takes to scan the bags.”

Scientists say this summer’s record heat was driven by climate change and that heat waves are likely to become more intense. But there are few safeguards for tens of millions of workers increasingly exposed to rising temperatures at work.

The Biden administration is taking steps to create new rules for employers, with two key steps expected in the coming months. A handful of states have implemented standards for working in extreme heat, including California, which requires employers to allow outdoor workers to rest in the shade in temperatures above 80 degrees.

But in other states, workers like Soto, who earns $15 an hour, continue to suffer as extreme heat stretches through the summer and early fall months. Dallas endured a record number of September days with triple-digit temperatures.

“The worst-performing states are simply not going to do it on their own,” said Dr. Rosemary Sokas, an occupational health expert at Georgetown University who co-authored a recent study. article in The New England Journal of Medicine about the dangers workers now face in the absence of federal regulations.

Pushed in 2021 Under President Biden, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is drafting guidelines for indoor and outdoor work in hot conditions, which could allow the federal government to fine employers who violate its recommendations.

But OSHA is still trudging through a labyrinthine rulemaking process. the agency is required to pass nearly 50 steps, most of which are mandated by executive orders or congressional legislation.

By the end of October, officials hope to complete a consultation with small businesses that would be affected by the standards. Business groups have opposed the potential rule, saying it could be burdensome and costly. Early next year, the agency could set a timeline for a proposed rule.

“That’s really an important milestone, because that’s where the agency formally alerts the public that we’re proposing a standard,” Andrew Levinson, OSHA’s standards director, said in an interview.

Levinson said the agency was planning to publish indoor and outdoor standards together, since workers “may be switching between outdoor work environments and then entering a warehouse or some other equipment processing area.” He added that OSHA had to consider different varieties of hot weather, such as dry and humid, and how they affect the body.

the agency current orientation For employers, with little enforcement force, it may offer clues about their formal heat standard. Among the guidelines, experts say, could be acclimatization: the practice of gradually adapting workers to schedules that expose them to extreme heat. Many workers have died from heat-related causes succumbed when they started a job.

The agency could also require employers to offer workers access to breaks, shade and cold water. In a statement to the Times, Mr. Soto’s employer, Prospect Airport Services, said it had assigned him to a cooler work area and had offered additional breaks to employees working in a baggage-handling space where the air conditioning had been lacking.

federal legislators legislation introduced over the summer that would require OSHA to issue an emergency rule within a year after the bill was passed, a move seen as unlikely due to opposition in the Republican-controlled House.

One of its main sponsors, Rep. Greg Casar, D-Texas, held a “thirst strike” over the summer to urge the acceleration of an OSHA standard. “It’s critical that a rule be put in place over the next year,” he said, adding, “If we want it to be permanent, we need to pass legislation.”

David Michaels, an epidemiologist at George Washington University who led OSHA during the Obama administration, said the agency’s current schedule suggested new standards may not arrive next year. Whenever it comes, the rule “will be a game-changer,” he said, adding: “There’s no question. And it will save lives.”

Extreme heat especially affects low-paid people like Mr. Soto. With higher temperatures, workers in poor counties lose more of their wages, researchers have found. And low-income Americans suffer disproportionately of chronic health conditions that make them more vulnerable to heat-related injuries.

people with epilepsy are more likely to have seizures in extreme heat. So Mr. Soto received permission from his supervisors to work in cooler baggage claim areas. The daily medication he takes has stabilized him.

However, he is still anxious as he navigates the sun-drenched, unreliable air-conditioned airport five days a week, including the long walk to the staff lounge for lunch that he says consumes much of his work time. rest. The heat of the airport, he said, “feels like you’re in the gym, in the sauna.”

“You start sweating all over. I start looking at my hands and think, How come I’m already sweating? “I haven’t done anything,” Soto added. “In my uniform, you can literally see the sweat on your back and stomach.”

Dangerous heat waves are affecting more of the country, including states with typically milder climates.

The costs to the economy are enormous: in 2021, more than 2.5 billion hours of the workforce in the U.S. agriculture, construction, manufacturing and service sectors were lost due to heat exposure, according to data compiled by The Lancet, the London-based medical journal. Productivity falls sharply in hot climates.

Few states offer more vivid examples of these new dangers than Texas. More than 40 people have died in Texas from heat-related causes since 2011, including a lineman and a mail carrier during the summer.

The risks to workers were evident on a series of sweltering late summer days in DFW, where temperatures approached 110 degrees.

More than 650,000 Americans worked at commercial airports in 2022, according to federal data compiled by the Service Employees International Union. Many have jobs that involve full or partial exposure to heat, including wheelchair attendants, shuttle drivers, and airplane cleaners that may require loitering in hot areas without adequate air conditioning.

Tarmac workers, such as baggage handlers, typically face the highest temperatures and most dangerous conditions. While some industries and employers have allowed workers to clock in early in the morning or late at night to avoid the worst of a day’s heat, flight schedules are fixed. Most airport workers cannot choose the time or place for their work.

Travun Watts, a contractor who earns $14 an hour cleaning American Airlines planes at the airport between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m., fainted one August afternoon while waiting on a passenger bridge in scorching weather.

Sitting in a baggage claim area on a recent afternoon before his shift, Watts, who has diabetes, recalled waking up in a Dallas hospital, not knowing what had brought him there. “I felt like I was in a loop, incoherent,” he recalled.

To assess the limits of working in extreme heat, scientists turn to what is known as wet-bulb temperature, a measure of temperature and humidity. Above 95 degrees, sweat cannot evaporate and the body cannot cool down. Spending hours outdoors can be fatal.

“When there are hot conditions, there is a greater demand on the heart to pump more blood to the largest organ in our body, which is the skin,” said Dr. Jonathan Patz, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied the effects of climate change on environmental health.

Extreme heat can wreak havoc on the body’s major organs. The heart and kidneys can be deprived of blood and oxygen, leading to kidney failure. If the brain becomes overheated and deprived of oxygen, it can stop signals to the body to cool down, preventing sweat.

Watts spent more than three days in the hospital, he said. A nurse still visits him at home once a week to check on him. His work had been relentless even after his return, he added, and often involved cleaning up to 14 planes per shift.

“Instead of giving me five to 10 minutes to set up my insulin meter, they rushed me, made me run from plane to plane, even when I told them it was bad for my health,” he said.

Airports are particularly risky workplaces, with concrete and asphalt structures that easily retain heat, Dr. Patz noted.

Extreme heat can reduce the safety of indoor spaces by reducing airflow and increasing the temperature of air-conditioned spaces. Terminal C, where Watts works, is older than others at the airport, with crowded hallways, unreliable air conditioning and drinking fountains with lukewarm water.

At 5:30 p.m. on a recent day, with the temperature hovering around 100 degrees, baggage clerks rested their heads and arms on the ramps unloading suitcases from flights in Terminal A.

“Any strenuous activity like throwing luggage on a conveyor belt requires a lot more effort,” said Dr. Frank LoVecchio, an emergency physician who treated airport workers over the summer at Valleywise Health Medical Center in Phoenix.

“I have seen super red people. They look like they just jumped into a pool,” said Zach Bodine, who makes about $15 an hour helping passengers in wheelchairs at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. He recalled his co-workers “throwing up in the bathroom non-stop.”

Soto, the Dallas baggage claim worker, said he had considered quitting, a move that could protect his health. But he remembered being a child who was amazed to see planes land in DFW with his father, a feeling that led him to dream of becoming a pilot.

Sometimes Soto rides the airport’s outdoor tram system just to see the planes. “Everyone wishes they could fly,” he said.

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