Millions of U.S. workers are exposed to heat-related illnesses and injuries in their workplaces each year. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that between 2015 and 2019, environmental heat cases resulted in an average of 35 fatalities per year and an average of 2,700 cases that resulted in days away from work. However, the BLS also reported that the total number of heat-related fatalities may be underreported and improperly diagnosed. The cause of death is often listed as a heart attack when the actual cause or aggravating cause may have been exposure to a heat-related hazard, according to the BLS. So, to protect workers from heat-related illnesses and injuries, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) announced a new National Emphasis Program (NEP) on April 12, 2022, which will last through April 8, 2025, unless cancelled or extended. Under the new NEP, OSHA has not set any specific standards for employers to comply with, as the stages of official rule-making may take multiple years. However, the NEP is an initiative to make progress while the new rules finalize in court. While there are no specific regulations for employers to comply with yet, OSHA has outlined several general ways for employers to comply in order to help reduce the number of heat-related illnesses and injuries in their workplace.
There are a range of heat-related illnesses and injuries and they may affect anyone, regardless of age or physical condition. Under OSHA law, employers are responsible for providing workplaces free of known safety hazards. This includes protecting workers from extreme heat. Hazardous heat exposure may occur both indoors and outdoors, and during any season, if the conditions are right, not only during heat waves. Occupational risk factors for heat illness include heavy physical activity, warm or hot environmental conditions, lack of acclimatization, and wearing clothing that holds in body heat. In a warm environment, especially when a worker is physically active, the body relies on its ability to get rid of excess heat to maintain a healthy internal body temperature, which is referred to as heat dissipation. Heat dissipation happens naturally through sweating and increased blood flow to the skin. Workers cool down more rapidly if the external, or environmental heat and physical activity, or metabolic heat are reduced. If heat dissipation does not happen quickly enough, a worker’s body temperature keeps rising and the worker may experience symptoms that include thirst, irritability, a rash, cramping, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke. Heat stroke, is the most severe heat-related illness. Those suffering from heat stroke experience mental dysfunction such as unconsciousness, confusion, disorientation, or slurred speech.
Heat-related illnesses and injuries are the most preventable in the workplace. Employers are encouraged to create and implement heat-related illness and injury prevention programs as part of their broader safety and health programs. As stated above, one of the occupational risk factors for a heat-related illness is lack of acclimatization. Workers who have not spent time recently in hot environments where they have been physically active will need time to build tolerance to the heat. During their first few days, employers should encourage workers to consume adequate fluids to include water and sports drinks, work shorter shifts, take frequent breaks, and quickly identify any heat illness symptoms. Making sure that all workers have the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) including breathable clothing, as well as hats, sunscreen, and sunglasses to protect them from the sun is crucial. Training all workers on topics such as the symptoms of a heat-related illness, heat stress prevention, the importance of hydration, first aid, and emergency response procedures, as well as implementing a “buddy” system for workers to check-in with each other are all critical parts of any prevention program.
To help combat heat-related illnesses and injuries in the workplace, the NEP authorizes OSHA to conduct pre-planned inspections of high-risk worksites on “heat priority days” where the heat index, or “feel like” temperature is expected to be 80 degrees Fahrenheit, or higher. OSHA bases its decision to investigate on factors such a heat-related illness incidence rates, the number of employee days away from work caused by those incidents, and the number of heat-related violations. They will also prioritize sites where there are employee complaints of employer-related heat hazards. OSHA will target more than 70 high-risk industries, to include general industry, e.g., mail and package delivery, landscaping, etc., oil and gas well operations, construction, e.g., roads, roofing, and other outdoor work, maritime, and agriculture.
What will OSHA look for during an inspection? According to the NEP, OSHA specifically states that a Certified Safety and Health Officer (CSHO) will review and inspect a number of heat illness-related compliance procedures and documents to include the following:
- OSHA 300 logs and 301 incident reports, if required by the industry being inspected.
- They will also interview workers for symptoms of headache, dizziness, fainting, dehydration, or other conditions that may indicate a heat-related illness, including both new employees, and any employees who have recently returned to work.
- They will determine if the employer has a heat-related illness and injury prevention program addressing heat exposure, and whether it considers the following:
- Is there a written program?
- How did the employer monitor ambient temperatures and levels of work exertion at the job site?
- Was there unlimited cool water that was easily accessible to the employees?
- Did the employer require additional breaks for hydration?
- Were there scheduled rest breaks?
- Was there access to a shaded area?
- Did the employer provide time for acclimatization of new and returning workers?
- Was a “buddy” system in place on hot days?
- Were administrative controls used, e.g., earlier start times, and employee or job rotation to limit heat exposures?
- Did the employer provide training on heat illness signs, how to report signs and symptoms, first aid, how to contact emergency personnel, prevention, and the importance of hydration?
- They will identify and review activities relevant to heat-related hazards, which may include, but are not limited to the following:
- Sources of heat-related illnesses, or injuries, to include: working in the direct sunlight, a hot vehicle, or machinery, or in areas with hot air, near a gas engine, furnace, boiler, or steam lines.
- The use of heavy or bulky clothing or equipment, including PPE.
- Estimated workload exertions by observing the types of job tasks performed by employees and whether those activities may be categorized as moderate, heavy, or very heavy work, considering both average workload and peak workloads.
- Duration of exposure during which a worker is continuously or repeatedly performing moderate to strenuous activities.
While the NEP for heat illnesses and injuries is not yet a federal requirement, employers are strongly encouraged to implement written safety procedures and training programs to mitigate heat-related issues immediately. Employers in Washington, Minnesota, and California, to name a few, have specific laws governing occupational heat exposure that may be greater than the federal laws. In addition, other states have their own hazard-avoidance regulations that exceed OSHA requirements. So, employers should familiarize themselves with OSHA regulations and their own state’s statutes, as they related to heat-related illnesses and injuries in the workplace in order to help avoid hefty fines and save lives.
For additional information on the topic of heat-related illnesses and injuries in the workplace, please contact us at www.newfocushr.com.
Written by: Kristen Deutsch, M.B.A., CCP
Source: United States Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration at www.OSHA.gov