News & Commentary

July 28, 2023

Swap Agrawal

Swap Agrawal is a student at Harvard Law School.

In today’s news and commentary, President Biden and Congressional Democrats act to protect workers from extreme heat; and associates at law firm Outten & Golden unionize.

On Thursday, President Biden announced new actions today to protect workers from extreme heat as historically high temperatures expose millions of people to serious danger. President Biden asked the Department of Labor (DOL) to issue its first-ever Hazard Alert for heat. Hazard Alerts are used by DOL to provide guidance to employers on how to comply with their legal obligations; they do not create new standards or legal obligations. DOL published a Hazard Alert the same day, reaffirming that employers have a duty to protect workers against heat. The Alert advised employers not to assign work in high heat conditions without protections such as adequate cool water, rest breaks, and shade or a cool rest area for employees. It also recommended that employers train employees on preventing, identifying, and treating heat illness. DOL said it is planning “enhanced enforcement actions” including inspections with a focus on locations and industries where high heat impacts vulnerable worker populations. The federal government also launched, a new website for the National Integrated Heat Health Information System (NIHHIS) with interactive maps, weather forecasts, and recommendations.

The White House fact sheet noted that more than 400 workers have died due to environmental heat exposure since 2011, and thousands more are hospitalized every year. Exposure to extreme heat can cause heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and cramps. The White House hopes its actions will better protect workers who labor outside in industries like agriculture or construction and are therefore particularly susceptible to severe illness or death from heat stress. “I don’t know why it took them so long to do this, but they need to act quicker because things are only getting worse,” said Yvette Cruz, a spokesperson for the Florida Farmworker Association. The Farmworker Association held a vigil last week for a 29-year-old man died while picking fruit on a South Florida farm on July 6. Another farmworker died of extreme heat on his first day of work in Parkland, Florida at the beginning of this year.

On Wednesday evening, Congressional Democrats also introduced bills in the House and Senate directing the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to adopt interim heat standards for workplace safety. In October 2021, OSHA began the rulemaking process to consider a heat-specific workplace standard by publishing an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Heat Injury and Illness Prevention in Outdoor and Indoor Work Settings, but it still has yet to issue a proposal. Congress hopes that it can spur the agency to act more quickly. “Workers in this country still have no legal protection against excessive heat — one of the oldest, most serious and most common workplace hazards,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va. “This legislation will require OSHA to issue a heat standard on a much faster track than the normal OSHA regulatory process.” Rep. Greg Casar (D-TX-35) even held a day-long “thirst-strike” on Tuesday, spending the day on the Capitol steps in 90-degree heat to raise awareness and push for federal safety standards.

On Thursday, Reuters reported that associate attorneys at plaintiff-side labor and employment law firm Outten & Golden successfully unionized. Outten & Golden United, which includes all 24 of the firm’s associates, was voluntarily recognized by firm. Adam Klein, managing partner of the 65-lawyer firm, said that the union was a “logical next step” given the firm’s work representing workers and unions, including the Communications Workers of America. “We’re very much supportive of the union movement,” Klein said. “We’re aligned with their interests.” He said the firm’s new union is not a member of any existing U.S. union organization. In a statement, Outten & Golden United said that “labor unions are uniquely situated to promote workplace democracy, equity, and transparency throughout the legal profession and beyond.” The union said it looks forward “to a historic and productive bargaining relationship with the firm.”

Enjoy OnLabor’s fresh takes on the day’s labor news, right in your inbox.