OSHA Issues Enhanced Heat Protection Measures
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently announced plans to better combat hazards associated with extreme heat exposure—both indoors and outdoors—through newly enhanced, expanded measures to protect workers.
The announcement follows a statement released by President Joe Biden at the beginning of the week on mobilizing the Administration to address extreme heat. The measure is part of the Biden-Harris administration's interagency effort and commitment to workplace safety, climate resilience and environmental justice.
“While heat illness is largely preventable, and commonly under-reported, thousands of workers are sickened each year by workplace heat exposure,” the DOL reports. “Despite widespread under-reporting, 43 workers died from heat illness in 2019, and at least 2,410 others suffered serious injuries and illnesses. Increasing heat precipitated by climate change can cause lost productivity and work hours resulting in large wage losses for workers.”
According to the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, the economic loss from heat is an estimated $100 billion annually (at least). The Council further estimates that this number could double by 2030 and quintuple by 2050 under a higher emissions scenario.
As a result of these heat-related health and safety concerns, OSHA is implementing an enforcement initiative on heat-related hazards, developing a 2022 National Emphasis Program on heat inspections, and launching a rulemaking process to develop a workplace heat standard.
The program is slated to target high-risk industries and focus agency resources and staff time on heat inspections and will be built upon the existing Regional Emphasis Program for Heat Illnesses in OSHA's Region VI, which covers Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
The Administration also plans to form a National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health Heat Injury and Illness Prevention Work Group to provide better understanding of challenges and to identify and share best practices to protect workers.
“Throughout the nation, millions of workers face serious hazards from high temperatures both outdoors and indoors. Amid changing climate, the growing frequency and intensity of extreme heat events is increasing the dangers workers face, especially for workers of color who disproportionately work in essential jobs in tough conditions,” said U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. “As Secretary of Labor, my priority is to make sure we are taking appropriate action to keep workers healthy and safe on the job.”
As stated, the initiative will apply to both indoor and outdoor worksites in general industry, as well as construction, agriculture and maritime where potential heat-related hazards exist. On days when a recognized heat temperature can result in increased risks of heat-related illnesses, OSHA plans to increase enforcement efforts.
“While agricultural and construction workers often come to mind first when thinking about workers most exposed to heat hazards, without proper safety actions, sun protection and climate-control, intense heat can be harmful to a wide variety of workers indoors or outdoors and during any season,” said Acting Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Jim Frederick.
Employers are also encouraged to implement intervention methods on heat priority days proactively, including regularly taking breaks for water, rest, shade, training workers on how to identify common symptoms and what to do when a worker suspects a heat-related illness is occurring, and taking periodic measurements to determine workers' heat exposure.
OSHA Area Directors across the nation will institute the following:
Next month, OSHA plans to take a significant step toward a federal heat standard to ensure protections in workplaces across the country by issuing an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on heat injury and illness prevention in outdoor and indoor work settings.
The advance notice will initiate a comment period allowing OSHA to gather diverse perspectives and technical expertise on topics including heat stress thresholds, heat acclimatization planning, exposure monitoring, and strategies to protect workers.
The Department of Labor released its annual heat safety reminders earlier this year, timed to honor the heat-related death of a New York worker the year before. Timothy Barber, 35, died on July 7, 2020, at the end of his shift working on the Genesee River Bridge Project in Geneseo, New York.
OSHA’s investigation into the death found that Barber had been performing what would be considered light-duty work: sorting bolts. However, he was in 90-plus F temperatures.
He was reportedly working alone, working without shade, working without water and not acclimated to the heat. OSHA also determined that his employer, Pavilion Drainage Supply Company Inc., failed to train him and implement other safeguards to protect him and other employees against extreme heat hazards.
“Timothy Barber should not have died. We call attention to this worker’s death so that other workers do not suffer from or succumb to heat-related death and illnesses. They are preventable,” said OSHA Area Director Michael Scime in Buffalo. “Employers are responsible for providing workplaces free of known safety hazards. This includes protecting workers from extreme heat.”
Therefore, OSHA reminded everyone that as temperatures rise, so do work risks.
Symptoms of excessive heat exposure include: heat stroke, heat stress, cramps, headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, heavy sweating and confusion.
Occupational factors that may contribute to heat illness include: high temperature and humidity, low fluid consumption, direct sun exposure, no shade, limited air movement, physical exertion or use of bulky protective clothing and equipment.
OSHA said that employers with workers exposed to high temperatures should establish and implement a heat illness prevention program and communicate it to supervisors and workers. This included:
“Don’t wait until a worker is sickened to address heat stress – take action,” said Scime. “Employers in Western New York and other areas must take action to keep workers from becoming ill. Effective preparation and knowledge of the hazards of heat can save lives today, and in the future. Three simple words: Water, Rest, Shade can make a huge difference when implemented in the workplace.”
OSHA also directed professionals to its Occupational Heat Exposure page, which explains symptoms of heat illness as well as first aid measures, proactive engineering controls and work practices to reduce workers’ exposure to heat.
In August, a roofing worker was reported to have died of heat-related illness in Oregon, following what officials called a “record-setting heatwave,” according to the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
According to reports, the unnamed worker was inspecting a potential leak from a condensate line at the end of June, during the hottest day on record in the state, which registered at 116 degrees F.
The worker reportedly collapsed onsite after coming down from the roof and later died in the hospital from heat stress on July 9, according to a spokesperson for the Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council.
The death is one of four heat-related fatalities that were under investigation by Oregon OSHA. The worker was employed by Robinson Construction, which has not commented on the incident.
The heat wave in general in late June was responsible for at least 115 confirmed and suspected deaths across the state. Out of the 83 confirmed deaths, 31 were women and 52 were men.
Despite annual reminders and warnings from OSHA, some places have taken heat illness prevention a step further. In 2019, a Florida lawmaker introduced a bill that would set a statewide standard for those working outdoors in relation to heat illness prevention.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, would mandate that workers be given plenty of drinking water, access to shade and 10-minute rest breaks enforced after every two hours of outside labor.
In addition to access to water, shade and breaks, the Florida House bill, and its companion bill in the state Senate, would also require training to spot signs of heat exhaustion and an acclimatization period for workers.
While OSHA has guidelines and recommendations to avoid heat hazards, there is no set standard for heat exposure. The lack of a standard was called to task in 2018 with a petition backed by more than 130 industry organizations.
Led by nonprofit Public Citizen, the petition called for OSHA to do more than just point to suggested guidelines provided by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and argued that, as the climate changes, workers are experiencing more and more heat stress every year, which can take a dangerous toll on the body.
According to the government, 69,374 workers were seriously injured from heat between 1992 and 2016, and 783 U.S. workers died from heat exposure. By combining climate projects and census data, Public Citizen concluded that, by 2050, more than 1 million agriculture and construction workers will experience 30 days or more of dangerous heat per year.
While OSHA endorses NIOSH’s criteria, it has never created a nationally enforceable rule requiring employers to provide water, rest, shade and, more specifically, acclimatization programs or training to recognize symptoms of heat illness.
OSHA does provide visual indicators for heat index levels, which are the baselines for the NIOSH guidelines. However, those levels were also put under the magnifying glass last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which oversees NIOSH.
In August 2018, the CDC released findings from a study that determined whether the heat index limits are effective in protecting workers. The CDC retrospectively reviewed 25 outdoor occupational heat-related illnesses—14 fatal, 11 nonfatal—investigated by OSHA from 2011 to 2016.
Research found that heat stress exceeded exposure limits in all 14 fatalities and in eight of the 11 nonfatal illnesses.
OSHA recommends using the heat index to protect workers, and separates temperatures into four categories: