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Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

Farmworkers and Firefighters Are on the Front Lines of Climate-Fueled Catastrophe

By Lin Nelson - Labor Notes, February 14, 2022

Despite the short flurry of support (it seems so long ago) for workers on the front lines, many of the folks who help hold our health and the economy together feel abandoned and used up. The Covid calamity and the escalating climate crisis are creating worker sacrifice zones.

In December, more than 700 workers and allies from across the country made their way (online) to the 10th annual Council on Occupational Safety and Health conference, where they shared stories about the conditions that make going to work a risky affair.

Heat and climate were major threads. We might be in the chill-blast of winter now, but we remember the summer’s heat, from fires in British Columbia to evacuated towns in Oregon to the blistering heat in Washington farmlands.

Outdoor workers were at the center of risk this year. Many were sent into floods and fires—to harvest food, to fight the infernos in the West, or to do dangerous storm cleanup throughout the South and Midwest.

These workers grappled with urgent but often inaccessible health alerts about temperature, air quality, signs of heat stress and fire risk. Many didn’t have the benefit of unions, protective legislation, or functioning public agencies, and faced reprimand or firing if they spoke up about their concerns.

Food-service workers are suffering from extreme heat; Few rules exist to protect them

By Matthew Sedacca - The Counter, September 6, 2021

With record-breaking temperatures blanketing the country and no federal heat standard in place, workers find they have no choice but to walk out.

As a heat dome blanketed Portland, Oregon in late June, workers at Voodoo Doughnut’s Old Town location found themselves crumbling in their store. Even with air-conditioning in the shop, ambient thermometers brought in by staff recorded interior temperatures upward of 96 degrees. Workers were breaking out in heat hives and doubling over from nausea. The company’s iconic Bacon Maple Bar doughnuts, with their frosting unable to set due to the heat, literally melted into soggy brown mush.

The high-90 temperatures in the Old Town location were already a drastic surge from the more routine ambient summer heat, which was estimated to be around 80 degrees in the store, even with the fryers running all day. But on June 27, when temperature highs in Portland would eventually reach a record-breaking 112 degrees, it reached more than 100 degrees inside Voodoo Doughnut. Workers went to management and suggested that they close the shop early for their safety. After their demand was waved off, a group of employees walked out and went on strike through Monday, when the city’s temperatures soared even further to 115 degrees

“We would rather walk out on strike than to see a coworker collapse and hurt themselves or suffer heat stroke or worst case scenario, you collapse while you’re over a fryer,” said Samantha Bryce, a Voodoo Doughnut employee in Portland, who participated in a strike with her colleagues over workplace safety in June. “We don’t want someone to get hurt before the company takes action.”

Redefining Work to Save the Planet

By Jared Spears - The Progressive, August 30, 2021

All summer, fed-up employees across the United States have been refusing to work. From frustrated food service employees to exhausted factory line workers, they are banding together to push back against punishing schedules, precarious conditions and unresponsive management.

Despite these workers being lauded as “essential” at the onset of the pandemic, major news outlets have been more interested in billionaires’ private space-race than in covering, say, Western farm pickers’ petition to OSHA for extreme-heat protections or the Teamsters’ drive to unionize Amazon workers nationwide. 

Meanwhile, the urgency of climate change is only growing more intense. And, with so many workers across the country struggling against subsistence wages and conditions, the prospect of organizing a society-wide response to meet the emissions reductions outlined in the latest IPCC report still seems far off. We upended our lives during the pandemic, but our response to what we know is happening to the planet has remained business-as-usual. 

Government can and should assume a much larger role, coordinating industries and reshaping markets to address our urgent threats while guaranteeing better, more humane and socially beneficial work for all. This is precisely why the demand for a Green New Deal was never limited to energy transition alone: it was also tied to quality of life issues such as raising the minimum wage and providing universal health care access.

The term evokes a broader realignment between labor, government and the private sector — as occurred during the Great Depression — that would unleash the nation’s untapped potential. If our red-hot summer of wildfires, heatwaves and labor confrontations underscores anything, it’s to drive home the wisdom of the Green New Deal. 

Higher Temperatures And Less Oversight Mean Workers Are At A Growing Risk In The Climate Emergency

By Brian Edwards and Jacob Margolis - LAist, August 25, 2021

In the summer of 2005, a terrible three-week heat wave swept through the West, driving temperatures to scorching triple-digit levels.

Four farmworkers working the fields of central California died.

The state quickly put emergency orders in place that evolved into the first workplace heat standard in the nation: Employers would have to give employees water, rest and shade as they toiled in high temperatures. Until then, there were no rules when it came to hot weather and the workplace.

Since then, California has seen hotter average temperatures in 12 of the past 16 years. Even as the climate emergency has grown more acute, the state’s once-groundbreaking heat-safety rules have not kept pace.

Public health experts and federal workplace regulators consider heat-related illness and death to be 100% preventable, they say. But California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health — Cal/OSHA, the agency that enforces the heat standard — has been chronically underfunded and understaffed. The result, according to dozens of interviews, a review of government records and an analysis of worker heat death cases: Farmworkers, firefighters, construction workers and others required to work in hot environments continue to die.

The state’s failure to adequately invest in Cal/OSHA has undercut the agency’s ability to crack down on companies that violate the heat standard. Its most recent budget request admitted as much, describing enforcement as “minimal to non-existent due to the lack of occupational health inspectors.” Rising temperatures caused by climate change have compounded the problem.

Some say the standard is already obsolete.

Heat Is Killing Workers In The U.S.; And There Are No Federal Rules To Protect Them

By Julia Shipley, et. al. - NPR, August 17, 2021

As the temperature in Grand Island, Neb., soared to 91 degrees that July day in 2018, two dozen farmworkers tunneled for nine hours into a thicket of cornstalks, snapping off tassels while they crossed a sunbaked field that spanned 206 acres — the equivalent of 156 football fields.

When they emerged at the end of the day to board a bus that would transport them to a nearby motel to sleep, one of the workers, Cruz Urias Beltran, didn't make it back. Searchers found the 52-year-old farmworker's body 20 hours later amid the corn husks, "as if he'd simply collapsed," recalled a funeral home employee. An empty water bottle was stuffed in his jeans pocket. An autopsy report confirmed that Beltran died from heatstroke. It was his third day on the job.

Beltran is one of at least 384 workers who died from environmental heat exposure in the U.S. in the last decade, according to an investigation by NPR and Columbia Journalism Investigations, the investigative reporting unit of Columbia Journalism School. The count includes people toiling in essential yet often invisible jobs in 37 states across the country: farm laborers in California, construction and trash-collection workers in Texas and tree trimmers in North Carolina and Virginia. An analysis of federal data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the three-year average of worker heat deaths has doubled since the early 1990s.

CJI and NPR reviewed hundreds of pages of documents, including workplace inspection reports, death investigation files, depositions, court records and police reports, and interviewed victims' families, former and current officials from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, workers, employers, workers' advocates, lawyers and experts.

CJI and NPR also analyzed two federal data sets on worker heat deaths: one from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the other from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Both are divisions within the U.S. Labor Department.

Extreme heat is killing American workers

By Umair Irfan - Vox, July 21, 2021

Abe Carlin held up an instant-read thermometer in the Portland, Oregon, pizzeria where they worked. It showed 103.2 degrees Fahrenheit. Even with half the ovens off and the air conditioning cranked up, the kitchen was desperately hot on June 27, when a heat dome capped the region.

Outside, temperatures were breaking records as a searing late-June heat wave settled across the Pacific Northwest. Portland reached a record high of 112 degrees Fahrenheit, only to be broken the next day. Portlanders, who have rarely felt such heat, didn’t want to turn on the ovens in their own homes.

So as temperatures started rising, more orders came into the pizzeria. The kitchen staff struggled to keep up with the demand using their limited oven space. And staffers who would have helped out couldn’t make it in as cables melted in Portland’s light rail system and left commuters stranded.

Conditions in Carlin’s pizza restaurant were actually better than many in the food industry. Employees were rotated between the cooler dining room and the warmer kitchen. The break room was stocked with cold Gatorade. Workers were told to take frequent breaks and even spend a few minutes in the cooler if needed.

Finally, the owners decided to close the restaurant early.

“Fundamentally, the way that our space was set up was not able to deal with heat,” Carlin said. “Our HVAC system is not meant to handle this.”

Workers at other Portland restaurants were not so lucky. Some closed early while others tried to stay open as long as possible. The heat triggered power outages that shut down air conditioners and coolers in several restaurants, and employees reported symptoms of heat exhaustion. Workers at Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland’s Old Town went on strike because of the heat. The striking workers were then fired.

For Farmworkers, Heat Too Often Means Needless Death

By Liza Gross - Inside Climate News, July 9, 2021

Advocates say the case of an undocumented Oregon worker during the record-breaking Pacific Northwest heatwave exposes the deadly toll of failed U.S. immigration law.

People around the Pacific Northwest piled into emergency cooling centers late last month to escape the region’s life-threatening heat wave. Sebastián Francisco Perez, an undocumented farmworker in Oregon who had arrived from Guatemala just two months ago, did not have that luxury. 

No laws required Perez’s employer to provide water, shade or rest breaks—let alone a cooling station—to help workers cope with the punishing heat. On June 26, temperatures approached 105 degrees at the nursery where Perez worked, about 30 miles south of Portland. As the mercury climbed, Perez worked until he collapsed and died. He was 38. 

If Congress passed heat standards like those adopted by California in 2005, farmworker advocates say, Perez might still be alive.

The United Farm Workers and Oregon-based Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN) urged state officials to issue emergency rules to protect agricultural workers from unsafe conditions during heat waves.

And on Tuesday, Gov. Kate Brown directed Oregon Occupational Safety and Health officials to do just that, temporarily expanding requirements for employers to provide shade, rest periods and cool water during heat waves until permanent rules are put in place.

Earth Day, Labor, and Me

By Joe Uehlein - Labor Network for Sustainability, April 21, 2021

The approach of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22 provides us an opportunity to reflect on the “long, strange trip” shared by the environmental movement and the labor movement over four decades here on Spaceship Earth.

A billion people participate in Earth Day events, making it the largest secular civic event in the world. But when it was founded in 1970, according to Earth Day’s first national coordinator Denis Hayes, “Without the UAW, the first Earth Day would have likely flopped!”

Less than a week after he first announced the idea for Earth Day, Senator Gaylord Nelson presented his proposal to the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO. Walter Ruther, President of the UAW, enthusiastically donated $2000 to help kick the effort off ““ to be followed by much more. Hayes recalls:

“The UAW was by far the largest contributor to the first Earth Day, and its support went beyond the merely financial. It printed and mailed all our materials at its expense — even those critical of pollution-belching cars. Its organizers turned out workers in every city where it has a presence. And, of course, Walter then endorsed the Clear Air Act that the Big Four were doing their damnedest to kill or gut.”

Some people may be surprised to learn that a labor union played such a significant role in the emergence of the modern environmental movement. When they think of organized labor, they think of things like support for coal and nuclear power plants and opposition to auto emissions standards.

When it comes to the environment, organized labor has two hearts beating within a single breast. On the one hand, the millions of union members are people and citizens like everybody else, threatened by air and water pollution, dependent of fossil fuels, and threatened by the devastating consequences of climate change. On the other hand, unions are responsible for protecting the jobs of their members, and efforts to protect the environment sometimes may threaten workers’ jobs. First as a working class kid and then as a labor official, I’ve been dealing with the two sides of this question my whole life.

On The Front Lines: Climate Change Threatens the Health of America's Workers

2018 Massachusetts Offshore Wind Workforce Assessment

By Paul Vigeant, et. al. - Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, January 2019

The 2018 Massachusetts Offshore Wind Workforce Assessment provides a comprehensive analysis of the workforce needs and economic development impacts associated with the deployment of 1600 megawatts of offshore wind in Massachusetts. The report describes the jobs associated with planning, constructing and servicing offshore wind projects and provides information on the education, skills and health and safety credentials required for each job. Importantly, the report highlights the opportunities for Massachusetts residents to work in this emerging industry, and identifies recommendations and key strategies to better position the Commonwealth, offshore wind industry, educational institutions, non-profits, and labor to develop and serve a burgeoning offshore wind workforce.

Read the Report (PDF).

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