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Get out in front of OSHA’s heat illness standard

By October 29, 2021 No Comments

By Dave Johnson, Phylmar newsletter editor


Planning for 2022? For many workplaces, preventing heat illness will be top of mind. Scorching heat waves and wildfires of 2021 are one reason. Media coverage of heat-related work injuries and deaths is another, particularly warehouse conditions. The weight of the White House is another. On September 20th President Biden announced a series of initiatives to protect workers and communities from extreme heat. “Millions of U.S. workers are exposed to heat in their workplaces,” a White House fact sheet reported. The National Weather Service reports that extreme heat is the number one national weather-related killer. Heat killed 815 workers from 1992-2017 and seriously injured 70,000 more, according to federal records.

Another move putting heat exposure on the front burner: OSHA will launch a National Emphasis Program (NEP) before the summer of 2022. Enforcement will prioritize inspections of work activities on days when the heat index exceeds 80℉.

On these days, OSHA area directors will dedicate additional resources in responding to heat-related complaints and expand the scope of programmed and unprogrammed inspections to address heat-related hazards. Enforcement will target specific industries, including industries that may be primarily indoors or in shaded work environments.

Enforcement targets

Targeted industries include commercial construction, landscaping, manufacturing, waste management, transportation, and warehousing. It is expected that OSHA will increasingly target indoor workplaces with these inspections. Targets include bakeries, kitchens, laundries, (all with heat-generating appliances), electrical utility boiler rooms, iron and steel mills and foundries, and paper or concrete manufacturing with hot local heat sources like furnaces.

OSHA has resisted for almost its entire 50-year history setting a heat illness prevention standard and has three times rejected NIOSH recommendations for a heat standard. But the agency now has marching orders from the White House to begin a rulemaking process to develop a workplace heat standard.

OSHA will issue an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) on heat illness prevention in outdoor and indoor work settings, to be published in the fall regulatory calendar in the Federal Register. The White House called the action “a significant step toward a federal heat standard to ensure protections in workplaces across the country.” The ANPRM will initiate a comment period allowing for OSHA to gather diverse perspectives and technical expertise on topics including heat stress thresholds, heat acclimatization planning, and exposure monitoring.

An OSHA heat standard will be years in the making. Until finalized, inspectors will use the general duty clause 5 (a)(1) to cite for at-risk heat exposures — “Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”

The Cal/OSHA model

Cal/OSHA’s Heat Illness Prevention standard is expected to be a model for both OSHA’s NEP and eventual standard. The California standard applies only to outdoor workers and requires employers to take four steps when the heat index reaches 80 degrees:

  • Provide training about heat illness prevention to all employees and supervisors.
  • Provide enough fresh water when it’s requested, so that each employee can drink at least one quart per hour or four 8-ounce glasses of water per hour, and encourage them to do so.
  • Provide access to shade or shady structures in place when temperatures reach 80 degrees and encourage employees to take a cool down rest in the shade for at least five minutes. Employees should not wait until they feel sick to cool down.
  • Develop and implement written procedures for complying with the Cal/OSHA standard.

When the heat index reaches 95 degrees, employers must remind workers at the start of every shift to hydrate and rest, offer 10-minute cool down periods every hour, and watch for signs of heat exhaustion.

High heat (95 degree or more) procedures of the standard include:

(1) Ensuring that effective communication by voice, observation, or electronic means is maintained so that employees at the work site can contact a supervisor when necessary. An electronic device, such as a cell phone or text messaging device, may be used for this purpose only if reception in the area is reliable.

(2) Observing employees for alertness and signs or symptoms of heat illness. The employer shall ensure effective employee observation/monitoring by implementing one or more of the following:

  • Supervisor or designee observation of 20 or fewer employees
  • Mandatory buddy system
  • Regular communication with lone workers such as by radio or cellular phone
  • Other effective means of observation.

(3) Designating one or more employees on each worksite as authorized to call for emergency medical services and allowing other employees to call for emergency services when no designated employee is available.

(4) Reminding employees throughout the work shift to drink plenty of water.

(5) Pre-shift meetings before the start of work review the high heat procedures, encourage employees to drink plenty of water, and remind employees of their right to take a cool-down rest when necessary.

Hurdles to a federal standard

OSHA’s heat standard will confront several challenges:

  • Defining a heat hazard can be subjective; it gets into what’s going on in an employee’s life. This is not like a simple chemical exposure.
  • Regional heat differences matter – Northeast and Midwest workers struggle with modest temperature boosts because they are not acclimated like Southern and Western-based workers who are used to hotter temperatures. The body adjusts to the conditions you live in.
  • Pinpointing the role heat stress plays in injury or death.
  • Determining how to regulate and enforce heat stress thresholds, heat acclimatization planning, exposure monitoring and medical monitoring.
  • Heat stress conditions may persist indoors days after the most recent heat advisory depending on a host of factors: the building design, building materials used, presence or absence of air conditioning, the number of windows in a building, and the level of energy machines produce while running influences thermal infrared radiation and heat retention.

Federal standard-setting will take years. Don’t wait. As former OSHA chief Dr. David Michaels (who once opposed an OSHA heat standard) says,” The standard is doable now because the country understands climate change effects and is much more committed to addressing it than ten years ago.”


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