Safety Leader

Working Safely in the Heat: Proposed OSHA measures aim to prevent heat injury, illness

Getty Images / ST.art
Getty Images / ST.art
Published On
May 13, 2022

As each year gets warmer, the concern for occupational heat-related injuries and illnesses grows. Therefore, precautionary measures should be taken to protect workers.

High temperatures can impair thinking, slow response time, and cause slippery hands, muscle fatigue, cramping and clouded eyewear. Hot weather can also result in more serious conditions such as sunburn, dehydration, heat exhaustion, fainting and heat stroke. Furthermore, it can amplify existing health problems including hypertension and kidney, heart and lung conditions.

With these dangers in mind, in October 2021, OSHA issued an official Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Heat Injury and Illness Prevention in Outdoor and Indoor Work Settings. In the announcement, OSHA indicated, “A standard specific to heat-related injury and illness prevention would more clearly set forth employer obligations and the measures necessary to more effectively protect employees from hazardous heat. The ultimate goal is to prevent and reduce the number of occupational injuries, illnesses, and fatalities caused by exposure to hazardous heat.”

The agency collected industry comments and feedback through late January. According to the Federal Register, OSHA sought a wide array of information concerning determinants of hazardous occupational heat exposure and heat-related illness in the workplace; inequalities in exposures and outcomes among workers of color and low-wage earners; structure of work and work arrangements affected by hazardous heat; existing efforts on heat illness prevention, including by OSHA, states, employers or other industry associations; heat illness prevention plans and programs; engineering controls, administrative controls and personal protective equipment; acclimatization; physiologic and exposure monitoring; planning and response to heat illness emergencies; worker training and engagement; costs, economic impacts and benefits; and impacts of climate change on hazardous heat exposure for outdoor and indoor work settings.

Personal impact

Heat impacts individuals differently based on age, weight, medical conditions and medications, so many in the construction industry have concerns about the effectiveness of regulations pertaining to heat-­related injuries and illnesses. Some assert that risk factors are not clearly defined and that a blanket threshold shouldn’t be applied to all workers. An OSHA standard may be challenging to quantify and enforce.

There are also concerns that, in some environments, workers will only be allowed to work for a minimal time. In some cases, rest periods could last as much as three times longer than work periods. This would impose impossible costs on employers. There are also concerns regarding potential medical or physical screening requirements.

Despite these concerns, the standard is moving forward. The initiative is a priority for the Biden administration.

In a news release announcing the initiative, Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said, “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.”

Enhanced enforcement

In the last year, OSHA implemented an enhanced enforcement program for heat-­related hazards and developed a National Emphasis Program on heat inspections. The administration also created a National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health Working Group for Heat Injury and Illness Prevention. These were attempts to gear up for a permanent standard.

California, Minnesota and Washington already have OSHA-approved state plans with precedent-setting regulations addressing heat stress. California’s standard has a starting threshold of 80°F.

In 2016, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released “Criteria for a Recommended Standard: Occupational Exposure to Heat and Hot Environments.” The document recommends medical screening, physiological monitoring and recommended alert and exposure limits.

Additionally, it states, “Employers should have an acclimatization plan for new and returning workers, because lack of acclimatization has been shown to be a major factor associated with worker heat-related illness and death. NIOSH recommends that employers provide the means for appropriate hydration and encourage their workers to hydrate themselves with potable water.”

About the Author

Tom O'Connor

Safety Columnist

Tom O'Connor is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Reach him at toconnor@intecweb.com.

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