RENO, Nev. (AP) – Santos Brizuela spent more than two decades laboring outdoors, persisting despite a bout of heatstroke while cutting sugarcane in Mexico and chronic laryngitis from repeated exposure to the hot sun while on various other jobs.
But last summer, while on a construction crew in Las Vegas, he reached his breaking point. Exposure to the sun made his head ache immediately. He lost much of his appetite.
Now at a maintenance job, Brizuela, 47, is able to take breaks. There are flyers on the walls with best practices for staying healthy protections he had not been afforded before.
"Sometimes as a worker you ask your employer for protection or for health and safety related needs, and they don’t listen or follow," he said in Spanish through an interpreter.
State and federal governments have long implemented federal procedures for environmental risks exacerbated by climate change, namely drought, flood and wildﬁres. But extreme heat protections have generally lagged with "no owner" in state and federal governments, said Ladd Keith, an assistant professor of planning and a research associate at the University of Arizona.
"In some ways, we have a very long way to catch up to the governance gap in treating the heat as a true climate hazard," Keith said.
There is no federal heat standard in the U.S. despite an ongoing push from President Joe Biden`s administration to establish one. Most of the hottest U.S. states currently have no heat-speciﬁc standards either.
Instead, workers in many states who are exposed to extreme heat are ostensibly protected by what is known as the "general duty clause," which requires employers to mitigate hazards that could cause serious injury or death. The clause permits state authorities to inspect work sites for violations, and many do, but there are no consistent benchmarks for determining what constitutes a serious heat hazard.
"What’s unsafe isn’t always clear," said Juanita Constible, a senior advocate from the Natural Resources Defense Council who tracks extreme heat policy. "Without a speciﬁc heat standard, it makes it more challenging for regulators to decide, ‘OK, this employer’s breaking the law or not.’"
Many states are adopting their own versions of a federal "emphasis" program increasing inspections to ensure employers offer water, shade and breaks, but citations and enforcement still must go through the general duty clause.
Extreme heat is notably absent from the list of disasters to which the Federal Emergency Management Agency can respond. And while regional floodplain managers are common throughout the country, there are only three newly created "chief heat ofﬁcer" positions to coordinate extreme heat planning, in Miami-Dade County, Phoenix and Los Angeles.
Federal experts have recommended extreme heat protections since 1972, but it wasn’t until 1997 and 2006, respectively, that Minnesota and California adopted the ﬁrst statewide protections. For a long time, those states were the exception, with only a scattering of others joining them throughout the early 2000s.
But as heat waves get longer and hotter, the tide is starting to change.
Colorado strengthened existing rules last year to require regular rest and meal breaks in extreme heat and cold and provide water and shade breaks when temperatures hit 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26.7 degrees Celsius). Washington state last month updated 15-yearold heat safety standards to lower the temperature at which cool-down breaks and other protections are required. Oregon, which adopted temporary heat protection rules in 2021, made them permanent last year.
Several other states are considering similar laws or regulations.