OSHA Turns Up the Temperature on Heat Stress Hazards

SLMA News ,

From SLMA's Employment Law Counsel at Wimberly & Lawson: 

On September 20, 2021, OSHA announced new measures, and an enforcement initiative, designed to combat hazards associated with extreme heat exposure. Here's what you need to know. 

Most-heat related illness is preventable, yet each year many workers fall ill from overexpsoure. This can occur indoors, but most commonly affects those who work outside, mostly in agriculture or construction. In 2019, there were 49 fatalities and more than 2,400 reported injuries or illness due to excessive heat. 

To address this issue, OSHA is developing a National Emphasis Program (NEP) and an enforcement initiative. The NEP prioritizes heat-related interventions and inspections of work activities on days when the heat index exceeds 80 degrees F. The initiative applies to indoor and outdoor worksites in general industry, construction, agriculture and maritime where potential heat-related hazards exist. The 2022 NEP builds on an existing Regional Emphasis Program for Heat Illnesses in OSHA's Region VI, which covers Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. 

Of course, in the South and West, temperatures in excess of 80 degrees F can mean more than half the year. Employers are not required to suspend operations when the mercury rises, but rather to implement intervention methods on heat priority days proactively. This means encouraging workers to take regular breaks for water and rest and providing shade or a "cooling station." It can be as simple as putting an overheated worker in an air-conditioned truck for a time. Workers (and supervisors) should be trained on how to identify common symptoms over heat exhaustion. 

Under the NEP, OSHA Area Directors will: 

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

Starting in October 2021, OSHA will issue an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) 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. Concerned employers are encouraged to submit comments which OSHA must consider before publishing a Final Rule. 

What's a responsible employer to do? Start by adopting your own heat hazard prevention program. California's Occupational Safety and Health Office (CalOSHA) has developed a good program you can link to: https://www.dir.ca.gov/dosh/HeatIllnessInfo.html. It contains policies and training materials for indoor and outdoor worksites and is available free of charge. An employer can tailor a program to fit its particular environment from these resources. We have developed a program that did meet the approval of a local area office of OSHA and would be glad to work with you on that program. 

The old saying goes that if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. That's not always practical. Better to keep an eye on workers when the temperature raises and provide water, rest and relief from heat, and to implement a written plan you can show OSHA in case they come to call. 

Questions? Need more information? Call Larry Stine or Betsy Dorminey at (404) 365-0900.