October 01, 2020

Harris, Brown Introduce Heat Stress Legislation to Protect Workers

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) on Thursday introduced legislation to ensure the safety and health of workers who are exposed to dangerous heat conditions in the workplace. The bill, the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, is named in honor of Asunción Valdivia who died in 2004 after picking grapes for ten hours straight in 105-degree temperatures. Mr. Valdivia fell unconscious and instead of calling an ambulance, his employer told Mr. Valdivia’s son to drive his father home. On his way home, he died of heat stroke at the age of 53. Mr. Valdivia’s death was completely preventable, yet his story is not unique.

Representatives Judy Chu (D-CA), Bobby Scott (D-VA), Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), and Alma Adams (D-NC) introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives. The bill builds on legislation that Rep. Chu introduced as a member of the California Assembly that made California the first state in the nation to require paid shade and water breaks for those who work outside. Currently, there is no similar federal standard.

“America has a serious and deadly problem of workers laboring in hot conditions without even the most basic protections such as rest breaks and access to water. These dangers are exacerbated right now as workers also face the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and smoke from widespread wildfires,” said Senator Harris. “It is absolutely unconscionable that workers in industries from agriculture to construction face excessive heat conditions for hours each day with no protections for their health and safety. I’m proud to introduce this legislation to ensure a more safe workplace for the thousands of workers that our country has come to rely on.”

“Protecting workers from heat stress is essential, particularly as global temperatures continue to rise and extreme weather conditions become more common,” said Senator Brown. “Every worker deserves a safe work environment, and this legislation is an important step toward creating national standards and protections that will keep workers safe on the job as the risks of heat stress increase.”

Heat-related illnesses can cause heat cramps, organ damage, heat exhaustion, stroke, and even death. Between 1992 and 2017, heat stress injuries killed 815 U.S. workers and seriously injured more than 70,000. Climate change is making the problem worse. In fact, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, June 2020 tied at Earth’s third hottest June on record. Farmworkers and construction workers suffer the highest incidence of heat illness. And no matter what the weather is outside, workers in factories and other workplaces, including ones where workers must wear personal protective equipment (PPE), can face dangerously high heat conditions all year round. 

The Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act will protect workers against occupational exposure to excessive heat by: 

  • Requiring the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to establish an enforceable standard to protect workers in high-heat environments with measures like paid breaks in cool spaces, access to water, limitations on time exposed to heat, and emergency response for workers with heat-related illness; and 
  • Directing employers to provide training for their employees on the risk factors that can lead to heat illness, and guidance on the proper procedures for responding to symptoms. 

In addition to Harris and Brown, co-sponsors of this legislation include Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). 

The Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act has the support of a broad coalition of groups including: United Farm Workers of America, United Farm Worker Foundation, Public Citizen, Farmworker Justice, AFL-CIO, American Public Health Association, Earthjustice, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Migrant Clinicians Network, Migrant Legal Action Program, National Employment Law Project, Natural Resources Defense Council, SEIU, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists, UNITE HERE!, United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, and Workers Defense Project.

“This past summer has been deadly for essential workers,” said Juley Fulcher, Worker Health and Safety Advocate for Public Citizen. “The combination of coronavirus and extreme heat puts farmworkers, mail carriers, warehouse workers and many others in danger every day they go to their jobs. Workplaces where COVID-19 runs rampant are often the same ones posing the greatest risk of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Not surprisingly, workers facing this double jeopardy are disproportionately Black and Brown. This summer has been one of the hottest on record — and heat stress will only be getting worse in the years to come. We thank Senators Harris and Brown for their leadership on this crucial bill to hold employers accountable for protecting their workers from heat-related illness and death.”

"Farmworkers perform one of the most arduous and dangerous jobs in the U.S. The current trend toward higher temperatures across the country is expected to accelerate, and with it the health risks posed by extreme heat. The lack of a federal standard to protect workers from heat stress endangers the health and lives of all workers, including farmworkers. Farmworkers should have access to something as basic as a sufficient amount of water, rest, and shade, instead of continuing to suffer tragic and avoidable injury and death,” said Bruce Goldstein, President, Farmworker Justice.

“As temperatures soar beyond 100 degrees across the U.S., farm workers still lack basic protections from deadly heat such as the right to cold water, shade and rest breaks,” said Teresa Romero, UFW President. “Farm workers —who were deemed essential by the federal government during the global pandemic— deserve water, shade, and breaks. The UFW is honored to work alongside Sen. Harris on the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act to enact national heat rules such as those we won in California.”

“Farm workers, who have been at the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic, must also face the additional risk of suffering heat illness,” said Diana Tellefson Torres, Executive Director of the UFW Foundation. “Farm workers are deemed essential workers but still lack basic labor rights. We need to change that. We are proud to join Sen. Harris in the fight for the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act of 2020 to provide workers the right to access to water, shade, rest breaks and trainings.”

“Senator Harris’ bill would provide common sense protections for millions of essential outdoor workers. If passed, it will help prevent avoidable and tragic deaths like Mr. Asunción Valdivia’s. Without climate action, extreme heat is and will continue to be a threat to the health of outdoor workers, many of whom are Latino and African American and already experience long-standing systemic health and social inequities,” said Juan Declet-Barreto, Climate Vulnerability Social Scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists.

“Sen. Harris' bill will help school groundskeepers, park workers, trash collectors, window washers, the thousands of school workers delivering meals to students, and everyone whose work must go on even when temperatures hit 90 degrees. It's time Congress stepped up to protect all essential workers,” said Mary Kay Henry, President, Service Employees International Union.

Bill text is available HERE.

A fact sheet on the bill is available HERE.