Corporate Lobbyists Are Fighting Heat and Wildfire Protections for Workers

In addition to blocking action on climate change, lobbyists for oil and gas companies are pushing back against federal labor protections meant to safeguard workers from the effects of record-high temperatures.

A construction worker takes a sip of water while repairing a road in Houston, Texas, on June 27, 2023. (Mark Felix / AFP via Getty Images)

Fossil fuel and corporate lobbying groups blocking action on climate change are also fighting labor protections meant to safeguard workers from its intensifying effects. As record-high temperatures kill the workers who grow our fooddeliver our packages, and build our homes, industry lobbying has stalled heat safety measures in Congress and at least six states, according to a Lever review.

As a result, most of the nation’s workers still aren’t guaranteed access to water, rest, and shade — the basic precautions needed to fend off dangerous heat stress. Heat exposure could already be responsible for as many as two thousand workplace deaths each year, and research suggests that it is three times as deadly when combined with exposure to air pollution from sources like wildfire smoke.

Business lobbies representing the agriculture, construction, and railroad industries have also opposed state rules protecting outdoor workers from smoke exposure.

The key opponent to worker climate protections include the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), a well-funded influence machine that describes itself as “the voice of small business” while pushing corporate agendas like the rollback of child labor protections. The group reported spending more than $1 million lobbying the federal government last year on issues including legislation to fast-track heat protections for workers. Soon after, the bill stalled.

Lobbyists for oil and gas companies — whose products are fueling the record-breaking heat that in turn drives demand for more fossil fuels — are now pushing back against rules on workplace heat safety being developed by federal labor regulators.

“Most employers don’t come out and say, ‘I oppose water breaks,’” said Juanita Constible, a senior advocate for climate and health at the nonprofit environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council, who is tracking state legislative efforts on heat protection. “So they hide behind these industry lobbying groups instead.”

In an address on extreme heat last month, President Joe Biden said his Labor Department would step up workplace inspections and issue a new alert about heat hazards. But labor and climate advocates are calling for faster action — including passage of legislation named for a California farmworker who died during a ten-hour shift picking grapes in 105 degree heat — to expedite the new heat safety rules.

“It’s not heat that kills workers so much as employers’ failure to provide protections,” said Jordan Barab, a former deputy assistant secretary for the Labor Department’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) during the Barack Obama administration. “While OSHA can certainly provide information for those employers who are willing to listen, a mandatory standard is almost always going to be more effective than voluntary guidance.”

While virtually all of OSHA’s workplace safety rules face opposition from the business lobby, a proposed heat standard “is going to affect more people and more employers than most,” Barab noted. “And unfortunately, for the ideological right wing of this country, it’s intimately tied in with denial of climate change — so that adds a whole other level of opposition.”

Without congressional action, heat safety rules are expected to take years to finalize. To date, the Biden administration has not announced plans to enact rules governing wildfire smoke exposure for outdoor workers, a step recommended by the National Academy of Sciences last year.

Workers Wait Decades for Protection

More than fifty years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended mandatory standards to protect workers from heat exposure, which can lead to organ failure and blood poisoning even in young, healthy people. All branches of the US armed forces have now adopted such standards. But for years, federal labor regulators delayed action while climate change intensified.

In 2011, following a summer that then was one of the hottest on record, labor and climate groups petitioned OSHA — whose rules cover most of the nation’s private sector workers — for a new rule mandating common sense requirements for all high-heat job sites. In addition to water and cooling-off breaks, occupational safety experts recommend an acclimatization period for new employees, who often die during their first few days on the job.

But President Barack Obama’s OSHA denied the petition. Already more than a decade into developing rules curbing workers’ exposure to silica dust and beryllium, the understaffed and underfunded agency “just had no resources to also work on a heat standard at that point,” Barab, the former deputy assistant secretary, told the Lever.

Another petition in 2018, this time joined by former OSHA directors, went ignored by the Donald Trump administration before Biden’s agency finally began the rulemaking process in 2021. But that process typically takes at least seven years and can drag out for up to 20, thanks to exacting requirements and fierce industry opposition.

Federal statutes and court decisions require OSHA to undertake a grueling rulemaking process, and an anti-regulatory law passed in the 1990s gives small businesses and their lobbies early sway in the process. When employers and industry groups decide to sue over completed rules — they almost always do — a rigorous standard for judicial review eases the path for legal challenges, keeping the agency tied up in court.

In February, seven state attorneys general petitioned OSHA to issue an emergency heat standard that would have taken effect this summer.

As the attorneys general noted in their petition, “occupational heat exposure is an issue of environmental and racial justice, as people of color and low-wage workers are disproportionately burdened by heat stress in the workplace.”

But the agency again denied the petition, citing the vulnerability of past emergency standards to legal challenges — including a lawsuit brought by the NFIB, the supposed small business lobby, that ultimately halted the Biden administration’s employer COVID-19 vaccine mandate last year. The corporate lobbying group’s successful legal argument before the Supreme Court last year provided a blueprint for recent cases stripping federal agencies of their power to fight climate change.

NFIB is also pushing OSHA to abandon workplace heat rules, arguing that sufficient private sector protections already exist.

“Employers and employees alike have a moral and financial interest in protecting employees from ill effects of heat at work, and they use common sense, water, rest, and shade, and when necessary more formal heat protection programs, often including engineering or administrative controls, for protection against heat,” the group’s general counsel, David Addington, wrote in 2021 regulatory comments.

Addington, a former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, added: “In the unfortunate situations in which heat injuries nevertheless occur, unemployment compensation, health insurance, and life insurance systems can mitigate the adverse impact on workers and their families.”

The American Petroleum Institute, a lobbying group that receives millions from oil and gas companies to oppose climate action, similarly argued that the new rules are unnecessary.

“The oil and gas industry understands heat stress risks and has successfully managed it for decades,” wrote a policy advisor for the group. “We would welcome more information and understanding on what is driving OSHA’s interest in this issue.”

Federal workplace safety data shows that workers have fallen sick or died from heat exposure while welding pipelines, constructing fracking wastewater tanks, and servicing oil wells.

Lobbying groups representing the agriculture and construction industries also submitted comments objecting to OSHA’s proposal, as reported by the Guardian.

Neither NFIB nor the American Petroleum Institute responded to the Lever’s request for comment.

“Lives Are at Risk”

Many of the same industry lobbying groups have also fought state-level efforts to enact climate protections for workers. Just five states have enacted workplace heat rules, and only three require employers to safeguard outdoor workers from wildfire smoke.

In Texas, which has more recorded heat-related deaths than any other state, Republican governor Greg Abbott in June signed what’s known locally as a “Death Star” bill preempting local ordinances that guaranteed water breaks for workers — the kind of preemption that has been a longtime priority for NFIB.

At least four workers in the state have died this summer after collapsing in triple-digit heat, including a twenty-four-year-old construction worker in San Antonio whose body temperature was nearly 110 degrees at his time of death.

While construction and farmworkers die from heat exposure at the highest rates, workers toiling in poorly ventilated warehouses, delivery trucks, and commercial kitchens are also at risk. At present, only Oregon’s heat standard applies to indoor workers.

California will soon extend protections to indoor workers and strengthen wildfire smoke rules, despite lobbying by NFIB and other industry groups.

But in Nevada, fierce opposition by lobbyists representing the state’s powerhouse hospitality sector this summer killed both legislation and proposed regulations that would have covered its workers.

Hospitality and other business lobbies are now lining up against proposed wildfire smoke rules in Washington state that would make permanent emergency rules put in place two years ago, as fires burned more than one million acres in the Pacific Northwest. The proposed rules would ramp up protective measures such as respirator use and schedule changes as air pollution levels rise.

While employers typically complain that heat and smoke exposure rules will be too costly, a growing body of research suggests that both conditions take a toll on labor force participation and productivity. Workplace heat stress costs the economy some $100 billion a year, according to one estimate by the watchdog group Public Citizen.

“There is no cost-benefit analysis that makes sense when lives are at risk,” said Juley Fulcher, the group’s worker health and safety advocate. “But if employers are going to complain that this is going to cost too much money — the reality is that not protecting workers is already costing us all.”