It’s been a hell of a hot summer, exploding the top off thermometers with triple-digit readings across the country. As we’re learning, week after week of this debilitating heat intensifies wildfires, causes electric grids to fail, kills millions of wild animals (including fish!), burns up crops and concentrates toxic air.
But there’s another impact that draws little notice: Heat kills workers. Indeed, searing days of 95, 100, 110 degrees are killing and injuring more U.S. workers each year than all the floods, hurricanes and tornados combined.
Those toiling outdoors — including farmworkers, roofers and carpenters, airport ground crews, landscapers, road and street repairers, letter carriers and trash collectors — are in the direct line of fire for this invisible, insidious killer. But working indoors is no better if there’s no AC, for metal and stone warehouses and manufacturing plants become ovens.
Then, welcome to climate change — 20 of the last 21 years gave us the hottest temperatures on record. Unsurprisingly, the yearly number of worker heat deaths in that period doubled. Also, researchers have determined that extreme workplace heat is causing about 170,000 people a year to suffer injuries on the job. The impact of heat is poorly understood, even by workers. A sudden heat stroke is not the only worry, for rising body temperatures can quickly fuzz the mind, weaken muscles, numb concentration. So workers fall, their hands get caught in machinery, they touch the wrong wire.
Corporate acolytes and right-wing moralists constantly preach to laboring stiffs about the uplifting dignity of work.
But that’s “dignity” as defined and controlled by corporate elites, not by workers, and the reward for it frequently includes on-the-job injuries… and death. Not that CEOs and well-heeled investors intend to sicken, maim and kill thousands of laborers every year — but they certainly do put them in positions that assure such unhappy results. For example, they demand that farmworkers go sunrise to sunset picking crops in California’s 105-degree desert heat, and that construction crews toil in the muggy dog days of Florida summers tarring condo roofs. Low-paid, powerless workers die, but no one in the corporate hierarchy did the deed, right? Heat was the killer.
But wait, not only are aloof, air-cooled bosses the ones who knowingly subject subordinates to deadly heat, they’re also the ones hiring squads of lobbyists and lawyers to kill simple, inexpensive rules to stop these deaths — such rules as requiring ample water at worksites; ensuring paid rest breaks in cool spaces; training on-site managers and employees to detect and react to signs of heat stress; requiring good ventilation and proper clothing; establishing emergency response procedures; fostering a safety-first culture; and imposing serious punishments for violators.
Such sensible steps have repeatedly been proposed as official workplace policy for at least the last 50 years — but intense industry lobbying has killed the adoption of all attempts to prevent what amounts to workplace murder by corporate profiteers. Instead, the U.S. government pretends to “protect” workers by printing posters admonishing employees to beware of heat, basically telling them, “Goodbye and good luck.”
But at last, a real proposal has been put on the table by more than 110 grassroots groups. See it — and join it — by contacting Public Citizen: Citizen.org.