In response to growing heat-related illnesses in the workplace, Fed-OSHA has announced a new program aimed at preventing such illness.
Extreme heat is becoming more frequent and severe during the spring and summer. In the summer of 2021, the temperature exceeded 100 degrees on three consecutive days — in Seattle, a normally temperate city. Hotter temperatures have become the norm in many parts of the country, particularly in the West and Southwest.
Extreme temperatures pose a risk to human health, particularly to people who work in these conditions. Between 2015 and 2019, an average of 35 workers died annually from heat-related illness and another 2,700 annual cases resulted in missed work time.
OSHA’s National Emphasis Program is intended to encourage employers to intervene early to prevent illnesses and deaths among workers during high-heat conditions announced by the National Weather Service (NWS).
It will put particular focus on many outdoor services industries, indoor manufacturing environments, warehousing, and nursing care facilities.
The program will consist of increased inspections of facilities on days when the NWS has issued heat advisories or warnings for the local area.
OSHA inspectors investigating unrelated matters will ask employers about their heat illness prevention measures. They will use the answers to assess the employer’s exposure to potential heat-related illness and assist them as needed to prevent it.
- Review injury logs and incident reports for evidence of heat-related illness.
- Review records of emergency room visits or ambulance transports related to heat illness.
- Interview workers for symptoms of heat-related illness.
- Determine if the employer has a prevention program in place.
- Document conditions relevant to heat hazards.
- Identify relevant work activities.
Even if OSHA is not looking for prevention programs, employers should implement them to prevent heat-related illness because of the potentially severe effects. For example, the California state government requires employers vulnerable to these problems to provide:
- Training — Train all employees and supervisors on heat illness prevention.
- Water — Provide drinking water that is fresh, pure, suitably cool and free of charge so each worker can drink at least 1 quart per hour, and encourage workers to do so. Water should be located as close as practicable to where employees are working.
- Access to shade — When temperatures reach 80 degrees, you must have and maintain one or more areas of shade at all times, when employees are present. Locate the shade as close as practical to the area where employees are working and provide enough to accommodate the number of employees on meal, recovery or rest periods at any time.
California employers are also required to:
- Reduce or reschedule work shifts during heat waves.
- Assign a work “buddy” to each employee, to monitor them for signs of heat illness.
- In agricultural environments, give employees a 10-minute cool-down period every two hours when the temperature reaches 95 degrees.
- Have emergency response procedures in place for potential illness events, including procedures for handling sick employees.
From both a moral and business perspective, employers should protect their employees from workplace hazards, including those related to high heat levels.
People will want to work for employers who care about their safety. OSHA expects it. Extreme heat conditions are a problem that all employers must take seriously.