In April, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a new national emphasis program to prevent heat-related injury, illness, or death in the workplace. Vice president Kamala Harris joined in sponsoring the program, which takes immediate effect. Due to rising temperatures worldwide, indoor and outdoor workplaces are seeing an increase in heat, making the program timely.
OSHA’s Press Release
According to a press release, “Heat illness affects thousands of indoor and outdoor workers each year and can tragically lead to death.” In 2019, for example, forty-three workers died from heat-related illness, and sixty-one in 2011. Heat-related injuries or death can occur indoors or outdoors, depending on the type of work and the type of work activity. Those not acclimated to heat are especially at risk of heat-related injury. Employers should assume that a worker with less than two weeks on the job is not acclimatized and should be carefully monitored for heat-related illness.
Agencies have published studies on how hot is too hot, but they are subjective because there are many factors to be considered, such as the amount of heat present in the workplace, how acclimated the worker is to heat, diet, electrolyte balance, the clothing the worker is wearing, and the worker’s size, among other things. As a result, agencies such as OSHA have published warnings on heat exposure that emphasize keeping an eye out for heat-related problems before they become serious. From 2011 to 2019, 41.9 percent of those who died of heat-related illness were working in construction, repair, or cleaning. Some occupations are more at risk of heat-related illness than others. During that time, 15.7 percent were involved in materials handling.
Some of the heaviest types of work include:
- Any activity done at near maximum pace
- Climbing stairs, ladder, or ramp
- Using an ax
- Intense shoveling or digging
- Sledgehammer use
- Stacking concrete
- Brick or stone masonry
- Rapid marching or physical fitness training
This can involve farm or factory work, welding, roofing, working with hot tar, or working in a bakery or metal shop. It can also involve carrying heavy loads indoors or out. Work that elevates a worker’s heart and respiration rates through exertion is work that can lead to heat-related injury. Workers exposed to such conditions should be given rest breaks, work during the cooler parts of the day, and frequent water breaks. According to OSHA, when temperatures are above 77°F (25°C), there is a high risk of heat-related illness with strenuous work.
According to OSHA’s press release, “Reducing workplace heat-related illnesses and injuries is a top priority for the Department of Labor, [and it plans] to immediately improve enforcement and compliance efforts, while continuing long-term work to establish a heat illness prevention rule.” OSHA plans to increase heat-related safety enforcement with this program, so employers should take heed of their potential for exposure to enforcement actions.
Various occupations are subject to heat-related illness. As the Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh says in the press release:
Tragically, the three-year average of workplace deaths caused by heat has doubled since the early 1990s. These extreme heat hazards aren’t limited to outdoor occupations, the seasons or geography. From farm workers in California to construction workers in Texas and warehouse workers in Pennsylvania, heat illness–exacerbated by our climate’s rising temperatures–presents a growing hazard for millions of workers.
OSHA plans to increase its enforcement of heat-related workplace safety. According to the press release,
OSHA will proactively initiate inspections in over 70 high-risk industries in indoor and outdoor work settings when the National Weather Service has issued a heat warning or advisory for a local area. On days when the heat index is 80 F or higher, OSHA inspectors and compliance assistance specialists will engage in proactive outreach and technical assistance to help stakeholders keep workers safe on the job. Inspectors will look for and address heat hazards during inspections, regardless of whether the industry is targeted in the [National Emphasis Program].
OSHA plans to take new steps to make sure that workers go home safe at the end of the day, and employers should be ready to work with OSHA personnel in making sure that workers do not suffer heat-related injury. In addition to new hires who have not yet become acclimated to workplace heat, employers should pay special attention to workers over sixty, who are generally less able to handle heat. But all workers that are subject to heat in the workplace should be monitored for heat-related illness.
Symptoms of Heat-Related Illness
OSHA lists the symptoms of heat-related illness as “thirst, irritability, a rash, cramping, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke.” Signs of heatstroke include “unconsciousness, confusion, disorientation, or slurred speech.” Other symptoms include a very high body temperature and a rapid heart rate. Previously, a defining symptom of heatstroke was that the worker stopped sweating. This is no longer the case. A worker can still be sweating and yet suffer from heatstroke. If a worker suffers from heatstroke, cool him or her down immediately and call 911.
Heat exhaustion is just what it sounds like–a worker can no longer work because he or she is too tired from the heat to continue working. A worker suffering from heat exhaustion may experience nausea or vomiting, as well as a higher than normal body temperature and a high heart rate. Allow the worker to rest, give water, and cool him or her down. For the other symptoms, the remedy is to cool the worker down, give water, and allow him or her to rest. Provide water to workers in hot environments so they may maintain a healthy electrolyte balance.
The press release quotes Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Doug Parker as saying: “Working together, we can ensure workers know their rights and employers meet their obligations in order to protect workers from the growing dangers of extreme heat.” OSHA plans to step up enforcement efforts with this new program it has launched. Employers should make sure that their employees are protected from heat-related illnesses in the workplace.