Heat exposure in the U.S. has led to hundreds of worker deaths since 2010 Heat has killed hundreds of workers in the U.S., many in construction or agriculture, an investigation by NPR and Columbia Journalism Investigations found. Federal standards might have prevented them.

Heat is killing workers in the U.S. — and there are no federal rules to protect them

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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Workers are dying on the job from excessive heat, deaths that might have been prevented at construction sites and in farm fields. An investigation by NPR and the investigative reporting unit of the Columbia Journalism School examined hundreds of these cases, and they found that OSHA - that's the federal agency charged with protecting occupational safety and health - that OSHA has known for decades how to prevent deaths from heat, but they have not acted. NPR investigative correspondent Cheryl W. Thompson has our report.

CHERYL W THOMPSON, BYLINE: This is the cornfield where three years ago a migrant worker collapsed. Cruz Urias Beltran had spent nine hours detasseling corn in the sunbaked fields in Grand Island, Neb. It was hot, at least 90 degrees. He had one bottle of water and no shade. At the end of the day, the other farm workers emerged from the field to board a bus to a nearby motel for the night, but not Beltran.

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UNIDENTIFIED 911 OPERATOR: Grand Island Emergency Center.

JOSEPH RIVERA: Yeah, hi, this is Joseph Rivera, and we run the detasseling crew, but there's been a guy missing now for a few hours. They thought maybe he went home because they couldn't find him in the road. And the company went out there, and they can't find him.

THOMPSON: A frantic Rivera organized a search party. They found Beltran's body 20 hours later amid the cornhusk, that empty water bottle stuffed in his pants pocket.

MICHAELA NORMAN: I would say he just had a heat stroke - I mean, just collapsed there, and that's where he landed.

THOMPSON: That's Michaela Norman, a clerk at a local funeral home who retrieved Beltran's body that July day. It was the third day on the job for the 52-year-old from Mexico, a job he took to earn money to buy his daughter a dress for her high school graduation. Our investigation found that Beltran is one of at least 384 workers who have died from the heat in the U.S. in the last decade, men and women laboring in fields, in construction, collecting trash. Dr. Ronda McCarthy specializes in occupational medicine in Texas.

RONDA MCCARTHY: Research and study shows that, you know, heat illness should be considered a preventable illness.

THOMPSON: OSHA is supposed to shield workers from health hazards, but has never adopted a national heat standard, one that would include enough water and shade breaks and time for employees to adjust to the extreme heat.

MCCARTHY: New workers who are not acclimated to the heat or hot environment - that is an increased risk factor for heat illness.

THOMPSON: Like Beltran, Karl Simmons didn't have time to acclimate. It was his second day on the job installing turf at a sprawling park in Fort Worth, Texas, for Hellas Construction. Simmons complained about the heat, first to his wife in a lunchtime call and later to his boss and others. It was 96 degrees, and he had run out of water. Feeling ill, Simmons sought shade under a tree. Within minutes, he collapsed. His brother-in-law, Michael Spriggins, was part of the crew.

MICHAEL SPRIGGINS: He was on the ground just shaking, you know, unresponsive. Eyes were just rolling in the back of his head, couldn't breathe. It was - yeah, yeah, it was a sight I ain't going to never forget.

THOMPSON: He called 911. The dispatcher told him to put cool towels under Simmons' neck and on his chest. Spriggins comforted him until help arrived.

SPRIGGINS: It seemed like to me he was going to be OK 'cause he took a deep breath soon as the towel touched him. He just took a deep breath, and his breathing starts slowing down, so I'm like, OK, you know, he looks like he's going to pull through this.

THOMPSON: But he didn't pull through. Simmons died two hours later - heat stroke. He was 30 and the father of two young children. Our investigation found that Simmons was one of at least 53 workers to die from heat in Texas since 2010. A review of OSHA records shows that Hellas is just one of a dozen companies in the U.S. that have had multiple workers die from heat since the agency started collecting this data.

After Simmons' death in 2018, OSHA cited and fined Hellas and ordered them to put measures in place to prevent future fatalities. But records show the company didn't follow that mandate, and OSHA failed to follow up. We asked Dean Wingo, a former OSHA inspector who covered the Texas region, who he thinks is responsible for preventing these deaths.

DEAN WINGO: Ultimately, it's the employer's responsibility, OK? But surely OSHA should follow up on those and ensure that those conditions have been corrected.

THOMPSON: A year later, in 2019, same company, another death, this time just outside of San Antonio. Twenty-two-year-old Pedro Martinez Jr. was doing cement work on a school athletic field there. He was home from college, and his father, who worked for Hellas, got him the job for the summer. It was brutally hot that day, nearly 100, and there was little shade. Records show that Martinez worked for 10 hours before taking a lunch break. Not long after, he became overheated and passed out. He later died of heat stroke at a local hospital. Hellas officials declined to talk about either case. Wingo says that OSHA needs to follow up in person on cases like this.

WINGO: When I was first starting with OSHA, I mean, we - every inspection we did, if there were a serious violation found, we went back out and verified that it was corrected. OSHA has shifted away from that now to letting them send in documents to prove that they did it.

THOMPSON: The Biden administration agrees that OSHA has to do a better job. James Frederick, the acting director, says too many workers are at risk of dying, particularly people of color like Cruz Urias Beltran and Karl Simmons and Pedro Martinez Jr.

JAMES FREDERICK: We maintain at OSHA that the occupational exposure to heat remains a very important topic and that we're focused on improving our efforts to protect workers moving forward and that the agency will continue to explore all opportunities to help employers and workers decrease the risk of heat exposure and illness.

THOMPSON: Frederick wouldn't say whether officials would adopt a national heat standard, but for the first time, the matter is on the agency's regulatory agenda. Cheryl W. Thompson, NPR News.

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