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OSHA Developing Rules to Curb Workplace Heat-Related Illnesses

On the heels of a recent report from the Atlantic Council on the dire consequences of extreme heat in the United States, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced it will enhance efforts to protect workers in hot environments.

OSHA said the primary goals of the initiative will be to:

  • Prioritize inspections of heat-related complaints, referrals, and employer-reported illnesses and initiate an onsite investigation where possible.
  • Instruct compliance safety and health officers, during their travels to job sites, to conduct an intervention (providing the agency's heat poster/wallet card, discussing the importance of easy access to cool water, cooling areas, and acclimatization) or opening an inspection when they observe employees performing strenuous work in hot conditions.
  • Expand the scope of other inspections to address heat-related hazards where worksite conditions or other evidence indicates these hazards may be present.

In its enforcement initiative to prevent and protect employees from serious heat-related illnesses and deaths, OSHA said, “Employers have a duty to prevent heat-related illnesses and deaths in both indoor and outdoor workplaces. Record hot temperatures create excessive heat working conditions that are especially dangerous to workers who have not been acclimatized. … Employers should use a combination of intervention methods, including encouraging or mandating that employees regularly take breaks for rest, shade, and supplying water. Employers should train employees on heat-related illnesses, how to spot common symptoms, and what to do when a worker suspects a heat-related illness is occuring. Employers should also take periodic measurements to determine employees’ heat exposure and provide protection to employees from heat as necessary.”

The initiative prioritizes inspections and interventions when the heat index exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit and applies to indoor and outdoor worksites in general industry, construction, agriculture, and maritime where potential heat-related hazards exist.

In addition, the administration is launching a rule-making process to develop a workplace heat standard. In October 2021 OSHA will issue an “Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” on heat injury, which will initiate a comment period enabling businesses, labor groups, health experts, and others to provide input into the rulemaking.

The New York Times reported on the possible measures businesses may need to implement by examining guidelines from various entities:

Some of those guidelines, which could inform a federal rule, include mandatory breaks for people who work in high temperatures for certain periods of time, and, in some cases, requirements that work cease when the heat index goes above a certain level. They also include requirements that employers provide shade, water, and air-conditioning when possible, and that employers provide access to medical attention for workers who are regularly exposed to heat.

But should such guidelines turn into federal regulations, it could increase costs or lower productivity for some industries—particularly any requirement that construction or other outdoor work cease entirely under certain heat conditions.

In a statement released by the White House, U.S. President Joe Biden said, “As with other weather events, extreme heat is gaining in frequency and ferocity due to climate change, threatening communities across the country. In fact, the National Weather Service has confirmed that extreme heat is now the leading weather-related killer in America. Rising temperatures pose an imminent threat to millions of American workers exposed to the elements, to kids in schools without air conditioning, to seniors in nursing homes without cooling resources, and particularly to disadvantaged communities.”