By Chris Megerian, Matthew Daly and Drew Costley
With heat waves spreading across the United States, President Joe Biden on Thursday announced new steps to protect workers — including a hazard alert notifying employers and employees about ways to stay protected from extreme heat — as well as measures to improve weather forecasts and make drinking water more accessible.
The actions come as nearly 40% of the U.S. population faces heat advisories, according to the National Weather Service. High temperatures have already scorched the Southwest this month, and more heat is expected in the Midwest and the Northeast in the coming days. Washington won't be spared, and the heat index in the capital could reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit or 43 degrees Celsius on Friday.
It's a worldwide problem, and scientists calculate that July will be the hottest month on record.
Noting that ocean temperatures near Miami topped 100 F (38 C), Biden said "that's more like jumping in a hot tub than jumping into the ocean to ride a wave.''
Citing federal data, Biden called extreme heat the No. 1 weather-related killer in the United States.
“Even those places that are used to extreme heat have never seen it as hot as it is now for as long as it's been,'' Biden said. “Even those who deny that we’re in the midst of a climate crisis can’t deny the impact of extreme heat is having on Americans.''
Biden's bid to address the immediate effects of climate change come as he faces pressure from fellow Democrats and environmental groups to declare a climate "emergency,'' a step he has so far resisted. The steps announced Thursday supplement his long-term agenda for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and deploying clean energy technology, policies that may not pay dividends for years to come while global temperatures continue to rise.
Biden directed the Labor Department to increase inspections of potentially dangerous workplaces such as farms and construction sites and called for heightened enforcement of heat safety violations.
As part of the initiative, the department will issue a hazard alert notifying employers and employees about ways to stay protected from extreme heat, which has killed 436 workers since 2011, according to federal statistics.
The Biden administration plans to spend $7 million to develop more detailed weather predictions to anticipate extreme weather like heat waves, plus $152 million to boost drinking water infrastructure and climate resilience in California, Colorado and Washington.
Biden was joined on Thursday by acting Labor Secretary Julie Su, as well as the leaders of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The mayors of Phoenix and San Antonio, two cities that have suffered from the heat waves, participated in the White House event virtually.
“Phoenix is known for heat," said Mayor Kate Gallego. "We are often called the Valley of the Sun. But right now, this summer has really been unprecedented. It’s taking a real toll on our community. We feel like we are very much on the front lines of climate change.''
Phoenix is the first in the nation to have a permanent, publicly funded heat office, Gallego said, with efforts now focused on getting residents inside as much as possible, at public cooling centers and encouraging use of water stations throughout the city.
Phoenix has seen at least 27 days in a row of temperatures exceeding 110 F (43.3 C). No other major city — defined as the 25 most populous in the United States — has had any stretch of 110 F (38 C) days or 90-degree (32 C) nights longer than Phoenix, said weather historian Christopher Burt, of the Weather Company.
Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, reported recently that there were 25 heat-associated deaths between April 11 and July 22. An additional 249 deaths remain under investigation. There were 425 heat-associated deaths in the county last year.
Other areas of Arizona are also struggling. A 26-year-old farmworker died after collapsing in the fields on July 20, when the high temperature reached 116 F (46.7 C), according to the Yuma County Sheriff's Office.
San Antonio, Texas, saw at least 15 straight days of 100-plus F (38-plus C) temperatures. At least 13 deaths in Texas have been blamed on the extreme heat.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said his city has moved to end the use of coal and is launching its first advanced rapid transit line, which will feature low- or zero-emission vehicles. The city is also developing solar power and other renewable energy, he said.
"I’m confident that the state best known for oil and gas production can help lead the way to a greener tomorrow,'' he said.
Thursday's announcement follows other steps that the Biden administration has taken to adapt to increasing threats from extreme heat. Among those it is highlighting:
The Labor Department is developing a standard for how workplaces deal with heat. The proposed rule by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would require employers to provide adequate water and rest breaks to outdoor workers, as well as medical services and training to address signs and symptoms of heat-related illness. That agency s holding meetings this summer to hear comments on how the heat standard would affect small businesses.
To keep low-income populations cool, the Department of Health and Human Services expanded its Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to provide more access to air conditioning and cooling centers such as libraries, senior centers or other public buildings. The Environmental Protection Agency also has provided assistance to help communities develop cooling centers within schools.
NOAA has been helping cities and towns map “heat islands” with dense buildings and fewer trees, and the Department of Agriculture issued guidance for creating more tree canopy coverage, which helps with cooling environments.
In addition, the administration launched a website called heat.gov with interactive maps, weather forecasts and tips for keeping cool amid record-breaking heat.
More than 100 members of Congress, led by Democratic Reps. Greg Casar and Sylvia Garcia of Texas and Judy Chu of California have called on the administration to implement the new heat standard for outdoor workers as quickly as possible.
“We know extreme weather events such as heat waves are becoming more frequent and more dangerous due to climate change," the lawmakers wrote in a letter Monday. U"rgent action is needed to prevent more deaths,″ the lawmakers wrote in a letter Monday.
The United Farm Workers and other groups also called on OSHA to immediately issue a nationwide rule protecting outdoor workers after farm worker deaths this month in Florida and Arizona.
“Farm workers need and deserve the access to shade, water and paid breaks,'' said UFW President Teresa Romero. "How many more workers will we let dangerous heat and callous employers kill before this nation acts?”
Casar, a freshman lawmaker from Austin, staged a “thirst strike” on Tuesday outside the U.S. Capitol, forgoing water breaks for nearly nine hours, to protest a new Texas law that bans local governments from requiring water breaks and other safety measures for outdoor workers. Casar called the law “insane″ and accused Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of being “on the wrong side of history." Republican lawmakers and other supporters of the law say it eliminates a patchwork of local regulations that are burdensome to businesses, and they say it won’t stop workers from taking breaks.
At least 42 workers died in Texas between 2011 and 2021 from environmental heat exposure, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Ladd Keith, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona who studies heat policy and governance, said the record-breaking heat much of the nation is experiencing “is very much in line with climate change projections.”
Despite the recent headlines, rising temperatures have typically not received the same level of attention as other climate risks, such as flooding and wildfires, Keith said.
“Heat has just not been a topic at the national level or local level that we’ve even considered addressing until the last couple of years,” he said.
Costley reported from New Orleans. AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein contributed to this report.