The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced several new measures to prioritize the protection of workers in hot environments, both indoors and out. Effective immediately, the agency outlined plans to step up enforcement of heat-related hazards. Looking ahead, OSHA is planning to develop a formal National Emphasis Program on heat inspections in 2022 and is launching a rulemaking process in October with an eye toward developing a workplace heat standard.
Workplace Heat Exposure
In 2019, 43 workers died from work-related heat illness while at least 2,410 others suffered from serious injuries and illnesses due to workplace heat exposure, according to OSHA. Heat-related illnesses range from heat cramps to heat stroke, which can be fatal. Fatal heat-related cases usually result from exertional heat stroke, where physical activity in hot environments causes the body temperature to reach 104°F or higher. In recent years, OSHA has conducted about 200 heat-related inspections and 15 heat-related fatality inspections annually. Many of these inspections have resulted in citations under OSHA’s General Duty Clause. According to OSHA, heat-related deaths may go underreported, because they may be attributed to other causes, such as a heart attack.
OSHA’s new enforcement initiative prioritizes heat-related interventions and inspections of work activities on days when the heat index exceeds 80 degrees F. The heat index is the “feels like” temperature, which is based on a combination of heat and humidity. While serious heat-related illnesses can occur in less extreme conditions, especially for jobs requiring physical exertion and bulky clothing or heavy equipment, serious incidents become more frequent when the heat index exceeds the 80-degree mark.
Employers, who have a duty to prevent heat-related illnesses and deaths in both indoor and outdoor workplaces, will be encouraged to implement a combination of proactive interventions when the heat index is above 80. These include encouraging or mandating employees to regularly take breaks for rest, shade, and hydration; supplying water; and acclimatizing new or returning workers, Acclimatization refers to the process of gradually increasing newcomers’ exposure time to hot conditions to allow them to properly adjust and regulate their body temperature.
In addition, employers are advised to train employees on heat-related illnesses, how to spot common symptoms, and what to do if they suspect a heat-related illness is occurring.
Employers should also take periodic measurements to determine employees’ heat exposure and provide protection to employees from heat as necessary.
Types of Employers Impacted
The enforcement initiative applies to indoor and outdoor worksites where potential heat-related hazards exist, which occur across a broad spectrum of industries.
Typical indoor worksites that may be impacted include foundries, brick-firing and ceramic plants, glass production facilities, rubber products factories, electrical utilities (particularly boiler rooms), bakeries, confectioneries, commercial kitchens, laundries, food canneries, warehouses without adequate climate control, chemical plants, and smelters.
Outdoor work activities include agriculture, landscaping, construction operations, refining gas/oil and well operations, asbestos and lead removal, waste collection activities, package and mail delivery, and any other activities that require moderate to high physical exertion or heavy clothing or equipment on a hot day.
On heat priority days, OSHA area directors have been instructed to prioritize onsite inspections of heat-related complaints, referrals, and employer-reported illnesses. Further, a review of potential heat-related hazards will be included in any programmed or unprogrammed inspection on heat priority days.
National Emphasis Program
OSHA will develop a National Emphasis Program (NEP) for heat-related illnesses next year. NEPs are temporary programs that focus OSHA’s resources on a specific hazard and impacted industries. Recent NEPs were created to focus OSHA resources on hazardous machinery and COVID-19. The heat-related NEP will build on the existing Regional Emphasis Program for Heat Illnesses in OSHA’s Region VI, which covers Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.
Development of New Standard
While several existing standards are applicable to addressing certain aspects of worker protection in hot environments, OSHA is taking a significant step toward creating a dedicated heat standard. The agency will issue an “Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” on heat injury and illness prevention in outdoor and indoor work settings in October. This will initiate a comment period allowing OSHA to gather diverse perspectives on the matter. Like all OSHA standards, the heat standard would create new mandated compliance obligations for impacted employers if and when it is established.
With OSHA taking an increased interest in workplace-related heat illnesses, it is important for employers – especially those in construction, agriculture, manufacturing, landscaping, and other industries with high incidents of heat illnesses – to examine their policies for protecting workers from heat exposure and ensuring proper interventions are in place, particularly for very hot and humid days.
Give us a call if you have questions about OSHA’s new heat-related initiatives or other compliance matters, or if you are looking to contest an OSHA citation or prepare for the OSHA inspection process. The OSHA lawyers at Sheehy Ware and Pappas have deep expertise in OSHA matters ranging from compliance to OSHA lawsuits.