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This story was originally published by Grist and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. 

Every year, heat causes at least 170,000 work-related injuries and as many as 2,000 fatalities. It’s one of the top five causes of workplace injuries and deaths, and summers are getting hotter.

Despite the growing risk of heat, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the agency responsible for regulating safe working conditions, has not taken action to protect workers from heat.

That’s according to a new report from Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization calling on OSHA to implement standards to reduce heat-related injuries and illnesses. The report’s authors say an immediate, short-term regulation known as an Emergency Temporary Standard could reduce those injuries by 30 percent. 

“Given the danger, OSHA must create an emergency safety rule to do its job of protecting workers,” said Dr. Juley Fulcher, Public Citizen’s health and safety advocate and the author of the report.

Since 2011, Public Citizen and other advocacy groups have been pushing OSHA to create both temporary standards to address heat-related injuries and a permanent rule. Last year, OSHA began working on a new heat standard, but it could be years before the rule is implemented, hence the need for an Emergency Temporary Standard. 

Government reports that heat is responsible for roughly 340 injuries and 40 deaths per year are likely “vast underestimates.”

“Rulemaking takes time, and it’s critical that we get it right,” said Doug Parker, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA. “We will continue to improve our efforts and explore opportunities to help employers and workers decrease the risk of heat exposure.”

According to the report, employers should be required to adopt a range of practices, including temperature thresholds, rest breaks, and hydration requirements. Based on analysis of data from California after the state implemented similar guidelines, Public Citizen estimates that up to 50,000 workplace injuries could be eliminated each year.

Between 2011 and 2020, OSHA and Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that heat was responsible for roughly 340 injuries and 40 deaths per year are likely “vast underestimates.” Public Citizen estimates that the true figures are closer to 170,000 injuries and 2000 deaths each year. Workers of color and low-income workers, who often lack health coverage and do not qualify for workers’ compensation, face the highest risk of heat-related injury and death. According to the report, the lowest paid workers experience five times as many heat-related injuries as the highest paid workers. 

“Today’s heat waves are just another indication of how extreme heat due to the climate crisis is endangering workers, especially immigrant farm workers,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen.

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Local News | Contra Costa County workers will see higher raises than usual in new deal

Contra Costa County has reached agreement with nine labor unions on a new contract, one that the union leaders hope will entice workers to stay at their jobs and not defect for other Bay Area county governments.

Nine unions that represent more than 6,000 workers — including hospital lab technicians, IT staff, social service workers and prosecutors — have agreed in principle to a four-year deal, with a 5% raise each year.

It’s one of the more lucrative raise structures in recent memory for county workers, some of whom said the COVID-19 pandemic has worn them thin and led many of their colleagues to seek jobs with other public employers such as Alameda, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties.

“We’ve felt a lot of stress and pressure from being short-staffed for so long,” said Rose Castañeda, an accountant in the county’s employment and human services department who called the new deal an “exciting step in the right direction.” The 5% raise she receives next year will be the highest she’s gotten since she was hired in 2017.

For county leaders, the deal was a necessary step to meet sky-high inflation rates and compete with neighboring counties where higher property values consistently produce more tax revenue.

“This puts us in a better position to recruit and retain the greatest talent and skills among employees in important areas,” said Supervisor John Gioia, who voted on Tuesday with fellow supervisors to ratify new contracts for all the unions, with the exception of Contra Costa Public Defenders, which is still finalizing terms with county officials. The contract is effective as of Aug. 1.

The county, which had a vacancy rate of 20% among nearly 10,000 full-time positions last year, compared to 12% in Santa Clara County, has also agreed to hire an outside firm to compare the salaries offered by various county departments against market-rate wages.

The firm’s study will be complete by next summer, and union leaders plan to meet with county officials afterward to discuss adjusting salaries for jobs that currently don’t pay enough.

“That, combined with just the overall contracts, gave our unions the confidence that the county has done all that it could within its means presently to try to address the worst staffing problems,” said Sean Stalbaum, lead organizer with nine-union coalition Staff Up Contra Costa.

Labor leaders had initially sought a 20% deal over three years and the county countered with 12%, producing a long standoff that ran well over the last contract’s expiration date in June. They settled on 20% over four years.

At large rallies in recent months, labor leaders said the county had not been able to fill a growing number of vacant positions and leaned on existing workers to carry out multiple jobs.

Castañeda, who was promoted to an accounting position in her department, watched her team of five instantly shrink when two senior staffers resigned.

“It was very challenging to be able to do the things we need to do to serve our community,” she said.

The health services department especially felt the strain, seeing a 14% increase in vacancies last year from 2020 after a grueling pandemic left them stressed out and exhausted.

By reaching a deal, the two sides staved off what Stalbaum described as a likely impasse in negotiations that would’ve required the state’s mediation.

“We knew going into this that the county was not going to be able to provide all that we were seeking,” Stalbaum said. “We’re grateful for the county’s leadership in doing as much as they could this cycle to try to correct the staffing problems we have.”

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