Legislators, Relief Groups Work To Help Arizonans Beat The Summer Heat

Published: Wednesday, July 10, 2019 - 11:37am
Updated: Thursday, July 11, 2019 - 5:34pm
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  • LAUREN GILGER: Heat-related deaths are all too common in Arizona. In 2018, excessively hot temperatures claimed 182 lives in the Phoenix area, according to Maricopa County Department of Public Health. It was a new record and the numbers continue to rise. Concerns about heat exposure for workers are what prompted Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva alongside Democratic Reps. Judy Chu and Alma Adams, to introduce a new bill that looks to protect workers from heat stress. The Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act would set federal heat standards that ensure the safety and health of workers. Grijalva said at a press conference this morning in D.C. that Arizona's workers are particularly vulnerable to extreme heat and with climate change the blazing temperatures will only get worse. For more on this I got a hold of Robert Weissman, president of the advocacy organization Public Citizen.

    ROBERT WEISSMAN: There is a serious problem with this country and there has been for a long time of workers being exposed to excessively high heat. This includes a lot of indoor workers, as it happens. But it's especially a problem for outdoor workers, farm workers particularly, construction workers and many others. Extreme heat stress is a killer. More than 700 workers died in the last 25 years from extreme heat stress. And that's what's reported, the real number is surely much higher. Tens of thousands injured. And this is all gonna get much worse with the climate crisis. The administration is refusing to act administratively on this. And so, Rep. Chu is taking a leadership role in introducing legislation that would mandate new heat stress protection for all workers in the United States.

    GILGER: There are some protections, right, for workers in extreme cold? Why is this something that hasn't had any attention brought to it yet?

    WEISSMAN: Well, there's no good reason for it. Except, that the most affected workers are a population that don't get enough attention in the United States, including, even from our Department of Labor. There have been some efforts though. California has, and some other states as well, have heat stress protections. The California standard was actually led by Rep. Chu when she was in the state Legislature in California. And the federal agency OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, did do one important thing. Which was, in the wake of the BP Deep Horizon disaster, when there was a massive cleanup effort in the Gulf of Mexico and you had workers out in the blazing-hot sun, on the water for 10 or 12 hours a day. OSHA imposed on BP, the kind of heat standard that we are now calling for. And the result was those workers, who otherwise for sure, would have had not just exposures but major heat stress events did not.

    GILGER: And so let's talk exactly about what this would do. So it would require OSHA to promulgate a heat stress standard. What exactly does that mean?

    WEISSMAN: There are a lot of elements to it but the core elements are really commonsense. The ways to prevent heat stress, are to ensure that people have access to cool water, to give them shade when they're in the outside from time to time and to give them rest breaks. So it's water, shade and rest that's the core element of what a standard would be.

    GILGER: That seems so obvious, I guess. Is it something that the market really isn't already doing? Like, doesn't it make sense that a business would want their workers to be safe enough that they could keep working?

    WEISSMAN: You might think that, but you would be wrong. So no, the market totally fails and that's why we have so many workers dying and suffering completely preventable illness from heat exposure. If you think what the farm workers, in particular, where the protections are minimal,... the workers are highly vulnerable, the work is hard and crucially the workers are typically paid by the piece. So they've got an incentive to work as hard as they possibly can for as long as they possibly can. And the employers are pushing them in that direction. No, the growers will not provide these minimal protections and the workers suffer as a result. By contrast, in California, where although there's still enforcement problems there, things have improved dramatically in the wake of the standards that it were opposed now more than a decade ago.

    GILGER: All right, that's Robert Weissman president of Public Citizen. Robert thank you for joining us.

    WEISSMAN: Hey, thanks so much for having me on.

    GILGER: And here in Arizona, the heat is at the top of everyone's mind as we are looking forward to temps over 110 for the next several days. And this kind of heat is bringing out a network of people here in The Valley, who work to help keep us all safe. Maria Piña coordinates the Heat Relief Network for the Maricopa Association of Governments, and she came into our studios recently to tell me more about it. The network is all about organizing the community to keep people safe when it's hot outside. It's made up of nonprofits,... faith-based groups, service providers and businesses who all come together around this common goal. They provide refuge stations, hydration stations and collection points all over The Valley for anyone who needs to get out of the heat, get a drink of water and cool down.

    MARIA PIÑA: The heat is called a silent killer for a good reason. People assume that, you can go about your day and work outside and not drink water, not hydrate properly. It's important for the public to be aware of the dangers of the heat, to stay well hydrated and stay out of the heat, take breaks as often as necessary. Especially, if you have health conditions, if you're working outside or if you really just need the respite from the heat.

    GILGER: How many people actually die from the heat every year, here in Arizona?

    PIÑA: It's amazing to think about this, but there are more heat associated deaths per year than any other inclement weather. More people die due to the heat than any other type of weather. And so it's important for the public to prevent these heat related deaths because they are preventable. All you need to do, is know the dangers of heat, be able to have access to water and stay out of the heat.

    GILGER: Who are the, what are the demographics like on that? Like, I think we would all assume that it's people experiencing homelessness who cannot necessarily get out of the heat, who are going to be the ones who die from this. But I understand that's not always the case.

    PIÑANo. You know, when the Heat Relief Network was formed in 2005, the focus was homelessness. And because in 2005 there was a heat wave that killed about 30 persons across the region in the time span of a week. It was shocking to hear that people can die from heat. How can people die from heat? From lack of resources to, or access to water, a respite from the heat. But it happened. And so the community came together to find a solution to this problem. And we were able to come up with a voluntary partnership of municipalities, service providers, faith-based groups, nonprofits and businesses, to provide refuge from heat and hydration station collection points. But to answer your question, we've seen that there has been an increase of persons who are homebound dying from heat. So we're looking at persons who are disabled homebound seniors, persons who don't have access to transportation and can't get to these heat refuges. And so people who are home,and perhaps they're elderly, perhaps they're low income and they don't want to turn on the AC and unfortunately they perish because of the expense of running the air conditioner and they die.

    GILGER: And obviously there was that story in the news last week about APS turning off the power of a woman in Sun City, who then passed away from a heat related illness. Are there resources out there for people who are in that situation, who can't afford the air conditioner?

    PIÑA: Yes, there are lots of resources available and we're happy to provide that information. MAG (Maricopa Association of Governments) can be contacted. We can provide as much resources in the community, across the region. We know that not everyone has access to internet or not everyone has a smartphone but the information, that resources, are out there they do exist.

    GILGER: Yeah, so you have this network and it's been established for some time now, like you said. But there are some challenges, I'm sure, in carrying this out and filling those gaps. What are they?

    PIÑA: There isn't always coverage where it's needed. So we're always looking to expand the partnership and ensure that people always have the access within walking distance, that would be the goal. But unfortunately because of the nature of the partnership, it's a voluntary partnership. So we can't force anyone to become partners. We open it up to the community and those who are able to and willing to sign up and become partners, we embrace them with open arms and hope that the community is able to make full use of those resources. But the challenge does exist, that hydration stations, heat refuges don't exist everywhere. They're not always readily accessible. So folks can always walk to them. And so that is a challenge. The other challenge is that more and more we see that agencies are stretched thin so it's difficult to expect an organization to do it all. No one organization can provide all these services. It really takes the entire community to come together... and coordinate with one another to be able to provide these resources to the public.

    GILGER: All right, Maria Piña is the Heat Relief Network coordinator for the Maricopa Association of Governments. Maria thank you for coming in.

    PIÑA: Thank you.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been modified to correct the U.S. representatives' states and to correct spelling of Robert Weissman and Maria Piña's names. 

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