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Nevada regulators look to protect workers faced with extreme heat

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg
Environment
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Extreme heat is not new to Nevada, but it is getting more pronounced. 

In 2019, as part of the Nevada Climate Initiative, the state assembled a team of top regional climate scientists to look at how warming has already affected the state — and what to expect going forward. What they found was warmer temperatures are here, and they are worsening. 

Since the 1900s, Nevada has seen average air temperatures increase, with the top 10 warmest years mostly occurring over the past two decades. Scientists project that the desert Southwest will only become hotter in the coming years, with forecasts showing additional warming across the state of anywhere from 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by midcentury, depending on high or low carbon emission scenarios. Scientists expect more days of extreme heat and warmer nights. 

This is not limited to Nevada. The issue of extreme heat is something that governments are preparing for across the country, and across the globe. Some U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Miami and Phoenix, have established dedicated positions to manage heat mitigation policies, which intersect not only with the environment but with public health, worker rights and the economy.

The risk of extreme heat varies depending on age, underlying health conditions and everyday exposure at a work environment (outdoor industries like construction) or even in a household.

Kristen Averyt, Gov. Steve Sisolak’s climate advisor, said the permissive nature of heat — the fact that it affects work and home environments — makes heat mitigation policies all the more important.

“If it hits us at home, it's going to hit us at work,” Averyt said. “More generally, we're all in a position where we need to adapt and make sure we're resilient to the impacts of extreme heat.”

Last summer, a report published by the Guinn Center, a think tank housed at UNR, found that “uneven patterns of investment, dislocation and zoning laws have resulted in some of Nevada's communities — disproportionately minorities and people experiencing poverty — facing a state of heightened exposure and vulnerability to climate-related threats.” The report also identified gaps in policy to address extreme heat in the workplace, particularly in Southern Nevada. 

Extreme heat has a major impact on outdoor workers, and according to the Guinn Center report, “many members of communities of color in southern Nevada are employed in sectors that may be more vulnerable to extreme heat.” Outdoor workers at risk of heat illness include workers in construction, landscapers, street vendors and employees who support the agricultural sector.

In 2020 alone, the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) received 98 complaints related to heat stress, up from 39 complaints in 2019 and the highest number of complaints since 2016, when the agency recorded 69 complaints. For the fiscal years between 2018 and 2021, Nevada cataloged an average of 73 workers’ compensation claims related to heat (an average of 47 claims were accepted), according to the state’s Division of Industrial Relations. Last year, regulators received reports of two heat-related fatalities in construction.

Despite the data and the issues identified around heat exposure in the workplace, labor regulators sometimes found it tough to cite employers when complaints arise. In Nevada, as is true in most states and federally, there are no specific regulations on the books to handle heat illness. That means regulators typically default to what is known as a “general duty clause.”

The state’s general duty clause is broad, requiring employers to provide a workplace that is safe and “free from recognized hazards” that could cause injuries or fatalities. But when it comes to heat, state and federal regulators have increasingly looked at more specific regulations. 

Since 2020, the state’s Division of Industrial Relations has been drafting a heat illness rule that would require employers to take measures to guard against overexposure to high temperatures. Four other states — California, Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington — have put forward heat standards, and the federal Department of Labor is currently working on its own heat-illness rule. In addition to Nevada, several other states are in the process of drafting rules to address heat. 

“Given our desert climate, we thought it'd be really helpful to have a heat standard in place that our office could follow,” said Victoria Carreon, the Division of Industrial Relations’s administrator. 

At this point in the process, the regulation has seen several different iterations, and the most current draft is going to be discussed at a workshop on Feb. 2. The current version would require employers, whose workers are exposed to high temperatures, defined as at or above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, to manage for heat as part of their written safety program. The heat plans would be required to outline how employers would provide water, shade or cooling, rest for workers showing signs of heat illness and training, among several other requirements.

The regulation would apply to all industries and work environments, both indoor and outdoor. Although it’s often less discussed, indoor workers can be exposed to extreme heat in certain types of work, including baking, utility jobs, manufacturing and warehousing, according to the federal OSHA branch. The agency said overexposure can lead to several illnesses, including heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat rash and rhabdomyolysis, which causes muscle breakdown.

An earlier version of the regulation went before the Legislative Commission in December. The panel of legislators must approve the regulation for it to be implemented. But a vote on the earlier version of the heat illness rule was held, amid concerns that businesses had not had a chance to weigh in on the rule. Since then, the rule has been revised, changing the threshold for what is considered a high temperature. 

The earlier rule defined high heat exposure being a dry-bulb temperature (meaning the temperature of the air) above 80 degrees Fahrenheit or the “applicable” Wet Bulb Globe Temperature, a measure that takes into consideration other factors, such as humidity and airflow, and is often used to determine heat hazards. The informal workshop next week will allow businesses, industrial health experts and others to weigh in on the new draft.  

“We are trying to get this wrapped up before the summer season, when we start experiencing the hot temperatures in Las Vegas and the rest of Nevada,” Carreon said in a recent interview.

Even though the federal government is working on its own regulation, Carreon said it’s important for the state to act. It could take years before the federal government’s rulemaking process is completed. If the federal government passes more stringent rules, the state will have to update its standards, she said. But in the meantime, she argued that they will provide a better guide for employers, workers and regulators, who right now rely on the general duty clause.

“It's easier if there is a clearer standard in place,” she said.


Here’s what else I’m watching this week:

Supreme Court takes up water rule: The U.S. Supreme Court will again be looking at the breadth of the Clean Water Act. E&E News’ Hannah Northey and Pamela King look at what it all means for the EPA’s authority to regulate wetlands and seasonal streams. Whatever the ruling, it could have big implications for Nevada. About 90 percent of the state’s mapped streams are ephemeral or intermittent, meaning they run largely in response to snowmelt or precipitation but they are not permanently flowing. The Supreme Court could look at whether those streams fall under the authority of the Clean Water Act. Here’s some more on what that means for Nevada.

Ormat Technologies, the Reno-headquartered geothermal developer, is appealing a federal District Court order granting a 90-day injunction on its Dixie Meadows project near Fallon. The case goes to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Associated Press’ Scott Sonner has more

“A conservation group and a southern Nevada ski resort said Tuesday they settled a federal lawsuit that had blocked plans to put a mountain biking park on steep terrain that is home to the endangered Mount Charleston blue butterfly,” The Associated Press’ Ken Ritter reports. 

Lithium abroad: Last week, Serbia revoked permits for Rio Tinto’s planned lithium project amid opposition from environmental activists. S&P Global’s Camille Erickson and Kip Keen examine what that means for lithium supply and the growing pressures to bring more projects online.

"In Idaho, as in much of the world, the clean-energy revolution is reshaping the geography of resource extraction," The Atlantic’s Michael Holtz writes in a thoughtful piece about efforts to revive cobalt mining in Idaho. Similar things could be said about lithium mining in Nevada.

Coming up: The U.S. EPA will be hosting a public meeting next week to discuss the Carson River Mercury Superfund Site. The agency is taking public comment through February.

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