By Leah Shepherd
Extreme heat waves this year have intensified pressure on U.S. regulators to finalize a national standard for heat illness prevention in the workplace. In 2021, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released a proposed rule on workplace heat standards, but a final rule hasn’t come out yet.
In the meantime, “OSHA is ramping up their enforcement on heat” under the general-duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, said Alana Genderson, an attorney with Morgan Lewis in Washington, D.C. “Employers have a duty to protect workers against heat.”
The general-duty clause requires that employers provide a work environment “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” In addition, OSHA’s sanitation standards require employers to make potable water accessible to workers in sufficient amounts.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued the first-ever hazard alert for heat, affirming that workers have heat-related protections under federal law. The federal government also launched a new website with interactive maps, weather forecasts and tips for keeping cool amid record-breaking heat. “Employers are impacted by heat more this summer than ever before,” Genderson said. “They realize that the risk is not just internal, but also external enforcement actions.”
State Laws Apply
While OSHA enforcement tends to increase during the summer, “this is no longer just a summer issue,” Genderson said, because states like Arizona and Texas see dangerously high temperatures throughout the year. California, Minnesota, and Washington state have heat illness prevention standards for outdoor workplaces, and other states are considering it. “This is top of mind for employers. It’s top of mind for legislators,” Genderson said. Nevertheless, the hottest southern states, like Arizona, Florida and Texas, do not have workplace standards for preventing heat illness.
The higher-risk industries that are targeted for OSHA enforcement include construction, transportation, ranching, farming, manufacturing, waste management, warehousing, delivery operations, food production, laundry services, landscaping, oil and gas well operations, and skilled nursing, according to Erin Rigney, an attorney with K&L Gates in Chicago. Farmworkers, farmers, firefighters and construction workers are disproportionately impacted by extreme heat, and more than 400 workers have died due to heat exposure at work since 2011, according to a White House fact sheet.
Heat illness is the biggest weather-related cause of death in the U.S., partly because excessive heat can exacerbate existing health problems like asthma, kidney failure and heart disease, according to OSHA. Excessive heat also can impair cognitive function and result in significant workplace injuries.
Preventing Heat Illness
To protect workers from heat illness and avoid OSHA investigations, Genderson recommended giving rest breaks, providing shaded areas, having a plan in place for when an emergency occurs, and training workers to recognize the signs of heat illness. Dizziness, thirst, heavy sweating, nausea and weakness are among the symptoms of heat exhaustion, according to the National Weather Service. Employers should acclimatize workers to weather conditions by gradually increasing their workloads, offering them more frequent breaks, and monitoring them for signs of heat illness, Rigney said.
Monitoring for heat illness may include gauging environmental conditions regularly and observing a person’s heart rate and body temperature, OSHA noted. Employers can use “buddy systems where workers are educated in signs and symptoms of heat-related illness and proactively look for signs and symptoms in fellow workers and encourage them to rest, hydrate, and find shade or seek emergency medical attention if the worker is experiencing signs of heat-related illness,” OSHA said in the proposed rule.
Other prevention strategies include shortening shifts, reducing the level of strenuous physical activity on high-heat days, and encouraging workers to wear breathable, light-colored and loose-fitting clothing, Rigney said. Employers should take heat-related illness complaints seriously and not assume complaints are unrelated to heat exposure, she added.