Extreme Heat Is Endangering America’s Workers—and Its Economy

28 minute read


Just after dawn on a recent July day in Rochelle, Ga., Silvia Moreno Ayala steps into a pair of sturdy work pants, slips on a long-sleeved shirt, and slathers her face and hands with sunscreen. She drapes a flowered scarf over her wide-brimmed hat to protect her neck and back from the punishing rays of the sun. There isn’t much she can do about the humidity, however. Morning is supposed to be the coolest part of the day, but sweat is already pooling in her rubber boots.

She drinks deeply from a large plastic water bottle, then squeezes out the air until it is flattened enough to tuck into her back pocket. If she is working a blueberry field, she will need her hands for the buckets. If, like today, she is weeding the watermelon fields, she will be carrying tools. Either way, the flattened bottle is her hack for carrying a water supply through the endless furrows. On the days she works the bigger cotton or blueberry fields, it might be hours before she makes it back to the drinks-filled cooler she has left at the field’s edge, and she doesn’t want to run out before then—she has heard the horror stories of farm workers dying in the fields, their desiccated bodies only discovered at the end of the day, when they don’t return with buckets full of fruit and their co-workers go looking for them.

Moreno, a 41-year-old farm worker who came to the U.S. from Mexico as a teenager, accepts headaches, nausea, muscle cramps and dizzy spells—signs of severe heat stress—as an inevitable part of her summer workday, but by sipping a little tepid water as she goes, she hopes to stave off a worse outcome. “I know people who work watermelons and get so hot they end up in the hospital,” she says. Her doctor warns that she might too one day. He says her kidneys, already damaged by years of working in hot conditions, won’t be able to take much more. Still, she perseveres through the suffocating heat, earning admiration for her toughness and dedication from Stanley Copeland, her employer of 17 years. “I’ve seen her load watermelon trucks. It would be so hot, you’d faint if you went out there,”says Copeland, a third-generation farmer. Like the other workers he employs on his family-owned farm, “I guarantee she can take the heat.”

The numbers say otherwise.

Likely dozens of workers have already died from heat exposure this year in what is shaping up to be the hottest in American history. The death toll started on an abnormally hot and humid New Year’s day in Florida when a 28-year-old laborer working on a bell-pepper farm died from heat stroke. On June 16, the first day of the Texas heatwave, with temperatures hovering around 100°F, construction worker Felipe Pascual overheated and died at his worksite near Houston. On June 19, a 35-year-old lineman repairing an East Texas powerline succumbed to heat exposure on a 96°F day. A day later 66-year-old postal worker Eugene Gates Jr. died while making his rounds in a Dallas neighborhood. While a cause of death has yet to be determined, the heat index that day reached a record-breaking 115°F.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 40 workers die every year from heat, most in outdoor jobs like farming, construction, and package delivery. But the official statistics don’t tell the real story, says Doug Parker, director of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which oversees working conditions in the U.S. “We’re confident that’s an undercount. Probably a significant undercount,” largely because the role of heat is often overlooked when it comes to issuing death certificates for cardiac arrest and respiratory failure. Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C., based consumer rights advocacy group, estimates that extreme heat contributes to between 600 and 2,000 deaths a year, along with 170,000 injuries, making heat one of the three main causes of death and injury in the American workplace.

Silvia Moreno Ayala standing in a field.
Silvia Moreno Ayala says she loves her work as a field crew leader for a South Georgia family owned farm, yet her doctor has warned her that this type of work is a threat to her health. José Ibarra Rizo for TIME

Climate change is supercharging the heatwaves and hot days that are already testing the limits of America’s outdoor laborers. At least a third of the U.S. population was under an extreme heat advisory at some point this summer, as a coast-to-coast heat dome sent temperatures well into the triple digits. Climate scientists analyzing this summer’s record-high temperatures for the World Weather Attribution consortium have found that the sweltering conditions would have been “virtually impossible…if humans had not warmed the planet by burning fossil fuels.” Next summer is likely to be worse, as the warming El Niño weather cycle intensifies through the winter. While the past eight years have been the hottest in history, they are also likely to be the coolest of the next century.

On a planet 4.86°F warmer—our current end-of-century trajectory—33 times as many people in the world would be subjected to dangerously high levels of extreme or humid heat. The American South and Southeast will feel like the Persian Gulf countries of today, where it is already too hot to safely work outside during the day for much of the summer. But no matter how hot it gets, garbage still has to be collected, packages delivered, houses roofed, roads constructed, electricity grids expanded and produce plucked for grocery store shelves. A 2020 study from the University of Washington and Stanford University finds that the average U.S. farmworker already endures dangerous levels of heat for 21 days of the year. By 2050, that number could jump to 39, and 62 by the end of the century. “Given that this issue is clearly one that affects workers across the nation, and that it’s also going to increasingly be an issue in places that in the past haven’t had to deal with heat, it is abundantly clear that something will have to be done to ensure those workers’ protection,” says the report’s author, Michelle Tigchelaar.

Read more: Thousands of Migrant Workers Died in Qatar’s Extreme Heat. The World Cup Forced a Reckoning

In most American states, you can be fined for leaving a dog outside without water or shade. But with the exception of California, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado,

America’s 2.5 million agricultural workers don’t have the same protections under high heat conditions. Nor do roofers, road construction crews, delivery drivers, or garbage collectors, or almost any other kind of outdoor employment, exposing some 50 million American workers across essential industries. That’s an estimated $100 billion annual toll on the economy in lost productivity, increased workers’ comp premiums, lawsuits, and health care costs. Yet protecting outdoor workers from extreme heat is easy, and in most cases, inexpensive. Public Citizen estimates that requiring employers to provide workers with cool water and periodic shaded rest breaks could prevent at least 50,000 injuries and illnesses a year.

In 2021, President Joe Biden asked OSHA to draft a federal protocol that would require employers to protect outdoor workers from extreme heat just as they would any other workplace hazard, from toxic chemicals to falling debris. But OSHA rulemaking is slow. And should a Republican win the presidency in 2024, the process would likely screech to a halt. Meanwhile, state-level efforts have been defeated by local politics in both red and blue states over the past several years, and opposition to a federal standard is already ramping up, led by industry groups who hold that heat protections are too onerous a burden for business. 

Silvia, for one, can’t wait. She has sacrificed 18 years and much of her health putting food on America’s tables. She loves the job, she says, but it’s about time someone thought about her wellbeing under conditions that are only going to get worse as the planet warms. There should be a law. Let there be protection.”


By 9 a.m. some 90,000 UPS drivers across the country roll out of distribution centers in their iconic brown delivery trucks, ready to transport the clothes, books, frozen fish, furniture, toilet paper, medicines, and overnight mail that an online-shopping obsessed America has come to depend upon. The trucks, primed for efficiency and easy maintenance, are neither air conditioned nor insulated. When the sun beats down, the accumulated heat blasts out the back like an oven with the door open. “Working all day in heat like this is physically painful,” says driver Barkley Wimpee as he pulls his truck out of the Rome, Ga., lot on a recent 92°F morning. Unlike farm workers, drivers can’t take advantage of the pre-dawn cool—deliveries are made during working hours. “By the time we get going, the sun is already blazing,” says Wimpee, 28. “I’m sweating before I leave the parking lot.”

Larry McBride, a 46-year-old UPS driver based in Phoenix, Ariz., keeps a thermometer in the back of his van. Some days, the temperature exceeds 135°F. Drivers spend most of their time in those sweltering holds, shifting and selecting the packages they need for delivery. “Before you realize it you start getting disoriented, lightheaded, like you might pass out,” he says. “When you step outside, even if it’s 115° out, you will feel like you got blasted with AC because it’s so hot back there.”

Last summer, McBride and Wimpee passed out from heat exhaustion while making their respective rounds. Both ended up in the hospital with diagnoses of acute kidney injury brought on by heat exposure. According to company records submitted to OSHA, at least a dozen UPS drivers are hospitalized for heat-related injuries every year. Not all survive. On June 25, 2022, Esteban Chavez, 24, died of suspected heat stroke while delivering packages on a 95° day in Pasadena, Calif., a tragedy that renewed calls for air-conditioning the fleet. Doing so, said company spokespeople at the time, was impractical given that drivers were constantly jumping in and out of the vehicles to make their deliveries.

UPS driver, Barkley Wimpee talks about doing his job in the heat

For more WATCH a short documentary about heat and outdoor work here.

On June 16, UPS’s 340,000 Teamsters’ union members voted to strike starting August 1, unless their demands for improved working conditions, including air-conditioned vehicles, were included in a new, five-year contract. While climate change was not specifically cited in the union demands, UPS’s unwillingness to adapt to the new realities of global warming by providing its employees with heat-adaptation strategies formed the subtext of the campaign. In the final stages of contract negotiations, the company had agreed to air condition all new vehicles starting in 2024, but McBride says the bigger issue is the relentless pace. Drivers are expected to deliver between 150 and 300 packages a day, and their progress is monitored by dashboard mounted cameras. “We need more breaks,” he says. “Drivers are doing 10, 12-hour days in extreme heat. That is too much for a body to take. It accumulates over time, and you can’t recover. That’s when things go wrong.”

Read more: What Climate Change Has to Do With the UPS Union Strike


By 11 a.m., George Guzman has turned off his blowtorch, stowed his tools, and called his team off the roofing project they have been working on since dawn. They will pick up again at 4 p.m., when the worst of the sun’s heat has burned away. Working up high, exposed to the sun with no shade in sight, and near boiling tar, roofers must tolerate far more heat than most other jobs. By taking a break during the hottest part of the day, Guzman can let his body recover, building a reserve of resilience that will take him through the end of the day, and the end of the project. Guzman used to work for a much bigger company, but they worked their crews through the day, no matter the temperature. To him, it wasn’t worth the risk. He started his own roofing business instead, with a small crew and one simple rule: they work hard, but on hot days, they don’t work stupid. “It’s not all about making money. It’s about protecting people, too,” he says.

A 90°F day might be perfect for the beach. But once you start working—lifting watermelons into a truck, sorting packages in the back of an overheated delivery van, spreading hot tar on a roof, or hauling garbage cans—your metabolism ramps up, burning fuel and raising the body’s core temperature. Your heart compensates by pumping blood away from your overheated organs to your skin, where dilating blood vessels can dissipate the heat with the help of evaporating sweat. If it’s humid, and the sweat can’t evaporate, the process breaks down. That’s where Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) comes in, a measurement system that combines the standard thermometer readings with humidity levels, sun angle, cloud cover, and wind factor to calculate the overall impact on the human body. It has become the gold standard in the relatively new field of heat performance research.

Getty images

A weather report’s heat index only incorporates temperature and humidity, and is measured in the shade, so it doesn’t truly reflect the impact on a body exposed to direct sun. Heat and human performance scientist Andreas Flouris, of the University of Thessaly’s FAME Lab, uses WBGT to figure out just how much heat the human body can tolerate, and under what conditions. Workers can handle up to 89.7°F WBGT—100°F with 30% humidity, or 86°F with 95% humidity—as long as they are given adequate rest periods and the opportunity to replace electrolytes and liquids lost to perspiration.

Heat exhaustion sets in when the body has lost too much water and salt, usually due to excessive sweating. A worker with heat exhaustion will feel nauseous or dizzy. They may start making mistakes—dropping tools, stumbling off a ladder, driving erratically. Over time it can lead to chronic health problems as key organs, such as the heart and kidneys are damaged. Heat stroke happens when the body’s core temperature surpasses 104°F and can no longer cool itself. Someone experiencing a heat stroke can stop sweating as the body’s basic functions shut down. If that worker isn’t immediately taken to a cool location and given a chance to rehydrate, death comes within a few hours.

That’s likely what happened to 29-year-old farmworker Efraín López García, whose lifeless body was discovered under a tree by coworkers on the afternoon of July 6, 2023, in Homestead, Fla. The WBGT that day reached 92°F, more than two degrees above what the body can safely tolerate. It was also the planet’s hottest day in recorded history, based on a global temperature average.

Read more: How to Tell the Difference Between Heat Stress, Exhaustion, and Stroke

These deaths and injuries are often dismissed as unfortunate accidents, a sad but inevitable consequence of outdoor work in a warming world. When concentrated among the poor and migrants, the deaths and injuries can seem to carry less weight. “In some ways they are seen as implements of the harvest, not human beings,” says Dean Florez, a former California State Senator who successfully launched a heat protection standard for the state back in 2005. “Everybody just kind of says, ‘Well, they’re immigrants, they know the conditions that they’re walking into.’ That mentality will continue unless there is some kind of government intervention, saying no, these workers are just as important to the economy as a United Auto Worker [union member], with the same kind of workplace protections.”

After a long morning picking watermelon in the sun, Victor Manuel Montes Jasso and Jesus Lopez Damian snatch whatever rare shade they can find to scarf down a quick lunch of pinto beans and chicken pasta. They are both grateful for the break and dreading its end. “It’s always risky,” says Lopez. “The reality is that you have to kill yourself in the sun and the heat.” Gulping down a 2-liter soda bottle, Montes nods in agreement. “There isn’t really any way to protect ourselves from the sun. But you need to work, right? That’s why we came here, to work hard.”


From the cab of his air-conditioned tractor, Billy Emory can hardly feel the heat and humidity rippling off the watermelon field where he has spent most of his morning. A work crew supervisor for Wood Farms, he is overseeing a long chain of men tossing giant green melons, fireman style, through the windows of a converted school bus. It’s over 93°F, with 40% humidity (87° WBGT), and even from a distance, he can make out the sweat soaking through their clothes. He shakes his head in admiration. “These guys, they can take the heat. We sure can’t.”

Latinos make up 18% of the American workforce, but according to the United Farm Workers union, 65% of the country’s 2.6 million farm laborers, one of the most dangerous job when it comes to heat exposure. A 2022 Frontiers in Public Health study found that Agricultural workers are 35 times more likely to die of heat than other workers, a statistic that Juanita Constible, senior climate and health advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, attributes to indifference, a lack of protections, and a pernicious myth dating to the plantation days that people of color are better with heat. “There’s often a perception that people from hot countries are able to deal with hot temperatures. It’s just simply untrue. It’s a racist belief that underpinned slavery that we still see in our agricultural system now.” Like any runner preparing for a marathon, a worker can slowly build up endurance, but most of them can only “take the heat,” in Emory’s words, because poverty and circumstance don’t give them much of a choice.

“These workers tolerate a lot of bad conditions because they don’t have a lot of options”
- Solimar Mercado-Spencer, director of the Farmworker Rights Division at Georgia Legal Services Program

In December 2021, a United Farm Workers Foundation survey of members found that 69% of respondents had experienced one or more symptoms related to health-threatening heat stress. Despite the fact that an employer does have a responsibility under OSHA’s general employment rules to protect workers from hazardous conditions, many farm laborers are scared to speak up because they’re either undocumented or on H-2A temporary visas and can be deported if they are fired. “These workers tolerate a lot of bad conditions because they don’t have a lot of options,” says Solimar Mercado-Spencer, director of the Farmworker Rights Division at Georgia Legal Services Program, a nonprofit providing free civil legal services for poor people in the state. “As long as they’re getting paid something, they’re probably not going to complain about the excessive heat.”

That economic precariousness also means that without greater education on the dangers of high heat exposure, the temptation to take safety shortcuts is strong. Many laborers work on piece rate, which provides a perverse incentive to work past the body’s warning signs into heat stress. Blueberry workers, for example, are often paid by the bucket, no matter how hot it is, says Moreno. “They get home with [heat exhaustion], because they have to work quickly and they do not rest, because if they rest, they lose money.” Added together, that makes migrants like Montes and Lopez, who are working the watermelons on a temporary visa, vulnerable to poor health outcomes down the line. One recently published study found that migrants from lower-income countries faced an 80% higher risk of dangerous occupational heat strain in agricultural work compared to native employees. Absent oversight, Constible warns, as heat increases, so will the human toll of opportunistic exploitation.

Migrant workers on six-month visas pick squash and peppers on a farm in Lyons, Georgia.
Migrant workers from Mexico, working on six-month visas, pick squash and peppers on a farm in Lyons, Ga., in July of 2023. José Ibarra Rizo for TIME


The shelves of El Paso Tienda Mexicana minimart in the farming town of Cordele, Ga., are stocked with the flavors of home: peanut candies, plantain chips, bags of dried chilies, and bottled hot sauces. In the refrigerated drinks section, big jugs of lemon-lime flavored Pedialyte are stacked six deep. Normally a medical intervention for children suffering the dehydrating effects of diarrhea, it is a popular remedy for adults who need to quickly replenish salts and electrolytes lost from excess sweating. It’s cheaper, if less tasty, than Gatorade. After a sweltering day in the fields and a quick shower, Silvia Moreno sometimes comes here to restock her cooler with ice and Pedialyte, prepping for the next day’s onslaught of heat.

Dressed in a slim black blouse and Burberry-plaid pants paired with black cowboy boots, her heart-shaped face framed by thick black curls, she looks more like the sales lady she once was than the farmworker she is now.On the days she supervises a work crew for Copeland, she makes sure they get regular breaks and finish early, before the peak of late afternoon heat and humidity. She keeps the crew cooler stocked with enough water and Pedialyte to get them through the day, on her own dime.

But not all supervisors treat their workers the same. She has watched supervisors for other farms force their crews to toil straight through the afternoon until 7 or 8. If the workers ask for a break, she says, the supervisor berates them. “He says, ‘Go home and don’t come back.’” The supervisor might leave a couple of gallons of ice water on the field’s edge at the start of the workday, but within an hour, says Moreno, the 30 or so workers have drunk it all. If a worker asks for more, she says, he tells them it’s their responsibility. “He says ‘If you are thirsty, you need to bring your own water.’”

The Nixon Administration first proposed setting up a federal heat safety standard to protect workers in 1972, not long after OSHA was established, but it never went anywhere. The steady uptick in heat deaths and injuries in recent years has brought the issue to the fore, says Constible. “Climate change is definitely increasing the urgency.” In 2012 China started requiring employers to provide protective measures for outdoor workers, and Spain announced in May that it would ban outdoor work during periods of extreme heat after a street cleaner died while working during a heatwave in Madrid last summer. Even Qatar, which was widely pilloried for its treatment of workers building infrastructure for the World Cup soccer championships, has recently implemented national heat protection standards that limit when, and for how long, workers can labor outside on high heat days.

A standard would help hold employers responsible when workers die or are injured from entirely preventable causes, says Andrew Levinson, OSHA director of standards and guidance. It would also even out the playing field for employers who are trying to do the right thing for their workers. With a standard, “everybody knows what to expect. And it creates for workers a clear understanding of their rights, their protections, and a mechanism to make sure that they’re effectively enforced when employers don’t meet those requirements and obligations.”

Nor would it be that onerous to implement. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control already has recommendations indicating how often a worker should rest and hydrate given a specific heat and humidity index. That could be the basis for new rules determining mandated paid breaks of lengths and intervals in proportion to the heat index and physical effort, says Juley Fulcher, Public Citizen’s worker health and safety advocate. Fulcher also thinks employers should be obligated to make water and shade easily accessible. Also important is an anti-retaliation clause, so workers can report violations without fear of getting fired, or deported.

In short, says Fulcher, a federal standard should look like the regulations California established back in 2005, after a spate of farmworker deaths. The regulations, which called for high-heat procedures to kick in once temperatures reach 95°F, were permanently adopted in 2006. “To the California Farm Bureau, we were traitors,” says former senator Florez, who championed the new regulations from day one. Farm owners warned that their costs would increase, and consumer prices would spike as a result. Grapes would rot on the vine and the almond industry would collapse. “But you know what? I haven’t seen a decline in productivity since,” says Florez. “In fact, the California ag industry seems to be on an upswing. It’s pretty clear that protecting workers is good for business.”

"It’s pretty clear that protecting workers is good for business”
- Dean Florez, former California State Senator

Washington State was the next to adopt heat protection standards in 2008, followed by Colorado and Oregon in May 2022. Since then, efforts to protect workers elsewhere have been largely stalled. A New York bill requiring businesses to protect outdoor workers and to air condition trucks and indoor workspaces in certain industries, is languishing in committee. In Nevada a proposal to require water, rest, and shade for employees once temperatures exceed 95°F was eventually amended to 105°F, and still failed. Virginia’s State workplace safety board voted against a proposal to adopt a heat illness prevention rule in 2021. In the middle of a three-week heatwave that broke all temperature records, Texas passed a law that effectively eliminated water breaks for construction workers in Austin and Dallas. Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature has failed to pass a heat illness prevention bill for workers at least three times, despite passing a similar bill to protect student athletes in 2020.

A federal standard would, of course, apply nationwide. The prospect galvanizes the opposition. After OSHA opened the floor to public comments in 2021, industry lobby groups weighed in with objections. The American Farm Bureau Federation said it “appears unnecessary,” and proposed that OSHA “partner with employers” on better training materials instead. The National Cotton Council argued that heat injuries weren’t due to the work itself, but rather due to “present-day luxuries such as air-conditioning…making it more difficult [for workers] to face the severe change in temperature" and for "younger workers who are used to a more sedentary lifestyle.”

According to Pam Knox, director of the University of Georgia Weather Network, there are legitimate concerns about cost, as well. She closely follows the impact of climate change on local weather and knows that projections for daily summertime highs above 95° are on the horizon for Georgia. Still, she says, it’s going to be a struggle for farmers to take care of their workforce while also dealing with the challenges of unpredictable weather extremes brought on by climate change. “Farmers work on very tight margins. If you have to give your workers more frequent work breaks, you have to pay them for extra hours.”

“If workers don’t get breaks, they die, and that costs you money too,” retorts Fulcher. It’s not just heat stroke deaths, but injuries and accidents which can drive up insurance fees and legal costs. According to Flouris, at the FAME lab, heat stress and dehydration can impair decision making and increase risk taking, while decreasing cognitive function. For an outdoor worker climbing a ladder, wielding a chainsaw, or sitting behind the wheel of a 10-ton delivery vehicle, a minor episode of heat stress-derived dizziness can turn into a major disaster. “I just don’t know how anybody could sit there and argue that a safety thing would increase your cost,” says James Lanier, managing partner for waste management company Ryland Environmental, who has already implemented a stringent heat safety plan to protect his 200 employees. Before co-founding his own company, he sold insurance plans to others, and is intimately familiar with the cost of worker’s compensation claims. Keeping people healthy and safe and able to do their job is much cheaper than dealing with workers who get sick or injured or who die, he says. “If you look at the cost of implementation, versus what [one accident] would cost you if you did have one, it is very, very, very negligible.”

While California saw a 30% decline in worker injury after passing its heat bill, there are few studies demonstrating the productivity benefits of heat standards, mostly because there are not many heat standards to draw from. But all it takes is spending a day mowing the lawn in the hot sun to realize that heat can be a productivity killer. “What I say to the people who say that compliance costs are too high, is that you’re probably losing money right now,” notes Constible. “And you just don’t realize it.”

Landscaper in macon posing for a portrait
As a landscaper in Macon, Ga., Demetrus McCoy, 32, often works during the hottest parts of the day finding shade when he can inside the crew’s trailer. During four months on the job, McCoy says he’s seen colleagues get dehydrated and sick with heat exhaustion.José Ibarra Rizo for TIME


When 5 p.m. rolls around, Chris Powell is ready to clock out. He’s been hanging off the back of a garbage truck for most of the past ten hours and his arms are slicked with sweat in the 91° afternoon heat. His job, wrestling full garbage cans into the embrace of the truck’s mechanical arm, is taxing, but manageable. Lanier, his boss, is a stickler about breaks, making sure everyone takes at least two 15-minute pauses during the day in the air-conditioned cool of the garbage truck’s front cab, in addition to a regular lunch break. If he ever starts feeling symptoms from the heat, he knows he can ask for help. Both he and the driver are well-versed in heat stress symptoms and treatment—it’s the principal topic of his weekly paid safety training these days.

Powell keeps a frozen bottle of water with him on the truck’s back perch, drinking it down as it melts. There is a cooler full of replacements up front in the cab. In his six years at Ryland, he’s never heard of anyone passing out. While the heat this summer has been blistering, he’s never found it too hot to work. Though if that were to happen, he’s confident that Ryland would call the truck back to base. But eventually, he’d be sent out again. Garbage collection is essential, says his supervisor, Maurice Dillard. “Regardless of whether it’s 112°F or 120° or 54° outside, it just has to be done.”

That doesn’t mean it has to be done at the expense of workers’ health and safety though. If the Georgia heat ever got as bad as some climate projections suggest, Lanier would consider adding in more breaks, or rejiggering the pickup schedule for cooler parts of the day. He might even add greater automation, so the workers can spend more time in the air-conditioned cab instead of outside. The important thing, he says, is to adapt the working conditions to his employees and not the other way around. “I don’t want to ever have to make that call to somebody’s family to say, ‘hey, somebody’s had an issue. They’re in hospital,’ or God forbid, even worse.” Lanier says he welcomes the idea of a federal heat protection standard—though he doesn’t think it will change anything he is already doing. If other employers complain of government meddling, he has a simple answer: “Well then, do the right thing. Care about your employees.


By 9 a.m. the next day on, temperatures from California to Florida have surpassed 100°F, sparking extreme heat advisories for nearly a third of the American population. Public health officials are urging residents to drink water, stay indoors, and avoid outdoor exercise. Animal welfare groups are reminding pet-owners to keep their charges well hydrated and in the shade, and in many states, outdoor sporting events have been postponed or canceled. But farmhands in Florida, road construction crews in Texas, and delivery drivers in Phoenix are hard at work, keeping America running under life-threatening conditions. Legally, they have no choice.

“Why are we being asked to choose between working and staying alive?” asks UPS driver Larry McBride, and texts a photo of the temperature reading from the back of his truck. It shows 137.3°F. “This is just going to continue where we are dropping like flies.”

This story was co-reported with Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Sofi Gratas and Grant Blankenship/Rochelle, Rome and Macon, Ga.; with additional reporting from Moises Velez Saez/Macon; Diane Tsai/Salt Lake City; and Leslie Dickstein and Julia Zorthian/New York

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