On May 14, 2008, a young worker named Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez arrived for her shift at a California vineyard. She was pregnant, and her job required her to spend long hours tying grapevines in the sun. As the day wore on, the temperature soared, eventually reaching triple digits. After nine hours of work, Maria collapsed from heat exhaustion. Two days later, Maria was dead. She was 17 years old.
Maria’s death demonstrates – in the saddest way possible – the risks of heat illness faced by outdoor workers. It also demonstrates – in the most shocking way possible – how easily such tragedies can be prevented. When Maria collapsed, the closest water source was a ten-minute walk away. Areas of shade were nowhere in sight. Even if Maria had been allowed a break, she would have had to choose between water and rest.
Sadly, Maria’s 19-year-old fiancé and her mother in Mexico have been joined by the grieving families of more than 30 workers who perished from heat illnesses last year alone. Thousands more workers become ill from heat exposure each year, which often manifests as heat exhaustion. Some of the highest injury rates are among construction workers, roofers, landscapers, baggage handlers and other air transportation workers, and farm workers.
To combat and prevent heat illness and raise awareness of its dangers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and its State Plan partners have launched a nationwide outreach campaign communicating a very simple message – water, rest, and shade – and educating workers and employers about the hazards of working in extreme heat. We want them to know the steps they can take to prevent heat illness.
OSHA created several new heat illness prevention tools and resources for employers and workers that are available on OSHA’s website.
Because Latino workers suffer disproportionately from on-the-job heat injuries and illnesses, our heat campaign will particularly reach out to these workers with many of OSHA’s print resources and website information on heat illness prevention available in Spanish. Through the local Federal and State offices, OSHA is also reaching out to employers, associations, worker advocates, consulates, and community and faith-based organizations to get these tools into the hands of those who need them.
Additionally, OSHA has partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which will now include worker safety precautions in all its Heat Advisories and Warnings and on its Heat Watch Web page.
Effective heat illness prevention requires simple planning. If you are an employer, it is your responsibility to protect all of your workers on the job. For example:
- Provide plenty of water.
- Schedule rest breaks in the shade or air-conditioned spaces.
- Plan heavy work early in the day.
- Prepare for medical emergencies.
- Train workers about heat and other job hazards.
- Take steps to help workers acclimatize to the heat, especially workers new to working outdoors in the heat or have been away from work for a week. Gradually increase workloads or allow more frequent breaks during the first week.
OSHA offers free and confidential consultation services to help small employers design heat prevention plans for their worksites – these programs are completely separate from OSHA’s enforcement activity and do not result in penalties or citations. Read more about OSHA’s on-site consultation program.
Workers can contact OSHA to ask a question or file a complaint. OSHA keeps this information confidential. Call our toll-free number at 1-800-321-OSHA (6742), or visit our website.
OSHA’s prevention message is clear: Water. Rest. Shade. These are three little words that make a big difference for outdoor workers during the hot summer months. Together, we can work to deliver this message and make sure that employers take appropriate precautions to combat and eliminate heat-related deaths of workers. Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez and her family suffered the tragic consequences of her employer’s failure to adopt the steps that would have kept her safe. Let’s make sure it does not happen again.
Dr. David Michaels is the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health.