The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Workers Dying on the Job from Heat

Jun 3, 2024

There’s a growing public health crisis in the United States: more and more people are dying on the job from extreme heat. In 2023, the hottest year in recorded history, 2,300 people died from heat related illnesses—triple the annual average between 2004 and 2019. And this figure probably is an undercount, given that causes of death reported on many death certificates may not connect the deaths to extreme heat. High temperatures can damage organs, depriving the heart and kidneys of oxygen and blood and overwhelming the body’s ability to cool down.

A team at the Office of Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is expected to propose a new rule that would require employers to protect an estimated 50 million people exposed to high temperatures while they work. They include farm workers, construction workers, people who sort packages in warehouses, clean airplane cabins and cook in commercial kitchens.

But proposing a new OSHA heat rule and making sure it is enforced are two different things. Past practice has shown that OSHA is understaffed, and even when it is able to verify heat-related violations at workplaces, most often it is only after heat-related hospitalizations and deaths have occurred.

And even the OSHA ruling itself leaves something to be desired, as it sets standards for establishing heat index thresholds—when most often the “thresholds” still end up justifying workers being forced to work in extremely hot conditions. Ask any autoworker in a paint shop, and they’ll tell you they’re still boiling on the job, despite being supposedly covered by OSHA heat rules.

While this latest OSHA ruling to protect workers from extreme heat on the job hasn’t even been put in place, certain business and industry groups, and certain politicians who serve their interests, have already indicated they will resist any such health and safety measures. Because these measures cut into the bottom line of businesses that try to get the most work out of the fewest number of workers, at the fastest pace, under the barest of working conditions, at the lowest cost—to their profit margins.

This capitalist system has created the conditions that have caused climate change in the first place, and now this surge in workers’ deaths from extreme heat is just one of its markers.

So, it’s not simply a matter of workers getting more heat breaks, access to water and shade, and air conditioning, that will address this horrific threat to human health. It’s when workers themselves guarantee their right to safe and healthy working conditions, guarantee that work is organized in a rational and humane fashion; guarantee that the planet is worth saving, by wrenching control of production, control of this whole system, out of the hands of this capitalist class. Reorganize the society! Workers can run things themselves.