While my colleagues here at the Labor Department were busy honoring the legacy of America’s working men and women this Labor Day, for many Americans, the holiday meant putting away our summer clothes and writing the last chapter of another summer come and gone.
This year, for the second year in a row, OSHA conducted a summerlong campaign to educate workers and employers about the risks of working outdoors in extreme heat. Looking back on the summer, there were an astonishing number of heat-related weather emergencies across the country: the hottest month in U.S. history, local temperature records broken by the thousand, wildfires and drought.
From the very first day of the summer, the OSHA began getting the word out about the dangers associated with this type of weather. On June 20, I joined Secretary Solis and representatives from the National Weather Service on a teleconference with dozens of television and radio weather broadcasters to discuss just how deadly extreme heat can be for outdoor workers and to urge them to spread the message about heat’s dangers to outdoor worker and their families. NWS meteorologist Eli Jacks previewed the extended heat outlook for the summer, accurately characterizing the scorching months to come.
OSHA’s outreach continued through a grueling July and August with hundreds of events in which OSHA field staff brought the message to their communities by attending worker events and appearing on radio and television. In Texas, OSHA staffed live, Spanish-language phone banks on Univision affiliates to answer questions from the public on heat illness prevention. OSHA also posted more than 100 “Water. Rest. Shade.” billboards across four states to educate employers and workers about the primary ways for outdoor workers to protect themselves in hot weather. The billboards appeared in Arkansas, Florida, Texas and Illinois – the four states with the highest number of occupational heat-related fatalities in 2010.
Since the beginning of the last year’s campaign, OSHA has distributed more than half a million educational posters, fact sheets, tools and other resources through our network of local offices, worker representatives and employer organizations – targeting the workers and industries that need them most. Secretary Solis, along with labor pioneer (and recent Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient) Dolores Huerta, recorded television and radio Public Service Announcements in English and Spanish that were broadcast in the hottest parts of the country, like Texas, Arizona and Nevada.
We were especially concerned about hard-to-reach, vulnerable workers who may have limited English proficiency or may work in remote areas in industries like agriculture or construction. We noted that these workers increasingly rely on mobile communications for information. That’s why OSHA created the OSHA Heat Safety Tool, a mobile smartphone application that provides vital safety information whenever and wherever you need it. As of this week, the app has been downloaded more than 54,000 times in English and Spanish on the iPhone, and Android and some Blackberry devices.
It is difficult – if not impossible – to measure the number of workers who are alive and well this September because employers took common-sense steps to reduce the risk of becoming seriously ill by allowing them to acclimatize to the heat. We can’t count the number of workers who recognized the signs of heat stroke or heat exhaustion in a co-worker and took action to get life-saving medical help. There is no telling what might have happened to the workers whose employers conducted comprehensive heat illness prevention training, and who – as a result – stayed hydrated and took frequent breaks in the shade during the summer’s most unforgiving days.
Sadly, we do know of workers who perished this summer from the effects of heat-related illnesses. Reports of these tragedies make perfectly clear what havoc extreme heat can wreak on the human body without the proper precautions. When word of these fatalities reaches us at OSHA’s national office during our videoconferences with our regional administrators, the room goes silent, and all of us share the sense of loss. We grieve for the loved ones of these workers and resolve to keep fighting. It will be months before we learn the estimated number of heat-related fatalities in 2012 from the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, but not one worker’s life should be endangered by these entirely preventable illnesses.
Still, there are parts of the country where the weather will continue to pose a risk of heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Even in September and beyond, it is critical to remember three little words: Water. Rest. Shade. The work can’t get done without them.
Dr. David Michaels is the assistant secretary for occupational safety and health.