Managing the risks of extreme weather 

By August 30, 2021 No Comments

By Dave Johnson, Phylmar newsletter editor

California faces unprecedented fire danger as record heat, dryness combine with fierce winds,” was the headline of an August 19, 2021 Los Angeles Times article. “California is entering uncharted territory,” according to the report, with wildfires torching more than a million acres fairly early in the fire season. Record dry conditions that have fueled widespread destruction are expected to combine with seasonal Santa Ana winds to potentially bring “unprecedented danger,” state fire officials told The Times.  

The Golden State’s wildfires this summer have been some of the largest blazes burning across 15 states, mostly in the West. Land parched by historic drought conditions are ripe for ignition. Many workers, supervisors and occupational safety and health professionals are confronting numerous risks on the frontlines of extreme weather conditions. 

An article in the August 2021 issue of Professional Safety, published by the American Society of Safety Professionals, predicted that “beyond heat and drought, extreme weather will lead to natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods, and outbreaks of communicable diseases. Safety professionals will have to respond to these natural disasters in their roles supporting emergency response and business continuity programs… likely in cooperation with neighboring communities.” 

One natural disaster, this summer’s Dixie Fire in northern California consumed at least 762 square miles – a scenario far beyond the routines practiced by safety and health professionals for hazardous materials spills, medical emergencies and evacuations of a single facility. Another far-ranging risk: across North America, July average temperatures were the sixth-highest ever recorded, according to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

OSHA under the microscope

“Heat exposure among outdoor workers is the most obvious and perhaps pressing issue,” former OSHA chief David Michaels told the Phylmar newsletter. “This is especially a concern for the more vulnerable workers: migrants and unauthorized workers, particularly in agriculture and construction.”

Reports of outdoor and indoor heat-related illnesses and fatalities prompted an investigation published in August by Politico and E&E News – “Regulators refuse to step in as workers languish in extreme heat” – and another investigation by National Public Radio (NPR) and the Columbia Journalism School – “Heat is killing workers in the U.S. – and there are no federal rules to protect them.” 

Not surprisingly the pressure is on OSHA to act. The agency first received a recommendation for a heat regulation from NIOSH in 1972 but has never worked on a standard. Inspectors use the General Duty Clause to cite employers for allegedly providing insufficient heat protection. The agency has now done an about-face.  “Heat hazards exist in many, many industries,” acting OSHA chief James Frederick told NPR. “We know that we have work to do with almost every industry to understand… what the effect of heat hazards in their workplaces is and how best they are putting in practices and controls to mitigate those hazards.” The wheels are in motion to set a national workplace heat standard, with OSHA requesting information from employers, health specialists, climate experts and workers. But a former high-ranking agency official told the Phlymar newsletter “it will take years to complete.” 

Another regulatory option is for OSHA to create a high-visibility heat stress National Emphasis Program (NEP), with compliance officers using the General Duty Clause to trigger heat protections. “I’m seeing more and more General Duty Clause violations for heat stress in general,” said this former OSHA official, who examined the top ten violations issued for specific industries. “Heat stress does seem to be a focus of OSHA on the enforcement side.”

As the Professional Safety article points out, heat is not the only product of extreme weather. Thirty percent of more than 13,000 plant operations (4,000+) required to have EPA Risk Management Programs (RMP) face risks from natural disasters such as wildfires, inland flooding, coastal flooding or storm surges from hurricanes, according to a policy brief issued in July by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for Progressive Reform. These RMP facilities use, store and transport chemicals that are potentially lethal, carcinogenic or generally harmful to human health. 

Many of these vulnerable facilities are not sitting idly by. A safety professional told the Phylmar newsletter: “In Florida we plan for extreme weather as part of our emergency plan – hurricanes, tornadoes, severe lightning storms, droughts, excessive rain. For years we’ve been addressing weather, heat stress, cold stress and such at the level within our control.”

Focus on the tactical level

The title of the Professional Safety article is “Climate Change & the Safety Profession.” Safety and health professionals contacted by the Phylmar newsletter were divided about being pulled into the climate change debate. Some want to see safety play a bigger role in sustainability initiatives, or plan to be an activist as a citizen, not a corporate professional. “It remains too political and politics are out of most pros’ comfort level,” said industrial hygienist Dan Markiewicz. Other pros don’t have the time or budget for anything other than addressing tangible risks. “Most pros are singularly focused on today’s challenges,” said one. “Their attention is on where risk is an immediate threat, not a gigantic global debate.”

“We just deal with extreme heat/cold, extreme weather, or more intense storms and emergency planning, respiratory issues, etc.,” said safety consultant Wayne Vanderhoof.

Pros are trained and experienced at operating at the tactical level. Rob Fisher, president of Fisher Improvement Technology, put it this way: “If it’s hot, plan the work based on that. If air quality is poor, ensure work can be done safely. If extreme weather is a risk, plan to mitigate with emergency plans in place.”

Formally engage frontline workers in facility preparedness and response planning, and continue fenceline monitoring with public access to sampling data and timely community alerts are two tactical recommendations of the policy brief on natural disaster risks issued this summer.

“Worker engagement should be followed by listing action items that local teams focus on resolving in the short-term,” said Mike Williamsen, author of the book “Delivering Safety Excellence: Engagement Culture at Every Level.”  “This is the arena that frontline workers live in every day. These are also items that corporate people are too far removed from to be effective in resolving.”

On the regulatory front

Compliance is still job one for many safety and health professionals. Most are working without a federal OSHA heat standard. But California issued an outdoor heat illness prevention standard in 2005 and it is enforced by Cal/OSHA. The rule is widely viewed as the gold standard, according to the NPR/Columbia School of Journalism report. The standard upholds the tactical pillars of heat safety: water, rest, shade, acclimatization and heat illness prevention training. In 2015, Cal/OSHA lowered the heat safety trigger limit from 85 to 80 degrees, or whenever an employee requests relief.

In July of this year, Oregon’s governor issued an emergency temporary heat rule (ETS) that will be in place for 180 days. The requirements expand access to shade and cool water. Tactics also include regular cool-down breaks, training, communication, emergency planning and other measures. Unlike Cal/OSHA’s heat rule, the Oregon ETS applies to any workplace – outdoors and indoors – where heat dangers are caused by the weather. The rule incorporates the heat index, which is what the temperature feels like to the human body when relative humidity is combined with the air temperature. Employers are required to take certain actions when the heat is equal to or greater than 80 degrees, and more detailed actions when the heat index rises above 90 degrees.

Cal/OSHA also has issued the Protection from Wildfire Smoke regulation and Washington State has issued an emergency wildfire smoke regulation. Tactics to protect workers in the Phylmar Academy’s online course, “Protect Yourself: Wildfire Smoke Employee Training,” include educating workers on the health effects of wildfire smoke exposure; ways to protect yourself or co-workers if symptoms of exposure are felt; supervisor responsibilities when the air quality poses a health hazard; how to read and interpret the air quality index; and recognizing symptoms.

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