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    OSHA Turns Up the Heat on Worker Protection

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 43 workers died from heat-related illness in 2019 and at least 2,410 others suffered serious injuries and illnesses. On September 20, 2021, the White House announced enhanced efforts the Department of Labor will take to address heat-related illnesses and fatalities.

    Earlier in 2021, OSHA began work on a heat standard for outdoor and indoor workplaces. It is currently in the pre-rule stage. It usually takes a minimum of seven years before a rule becomes final and published in the Federal Register. So, in the meantime, OSHA released its National Emphasis Program - Outdoor and Indoor Heat-Related Hazards on April 8, 2022.

    National Emphasis Programs (NEPs) are temporary and have expiration dates, but they can be renewed indefinitely. For example, we still have a NEP on Combustible Dust that was first issued in 2008.

    Preventing heat illness has long been a concern of OSHA. California, Minnesota, and Washington have State OSHA Plans that have a heat standard for outdoor workplaces. Oregon established an Emergency Temporary Standard in July 2021 for indoor and outdoor workplaces. OSHA Region VI, which includes Texas and surrounding states, has had a Regional Heat Emphasis Program for years, but only for outdoor workplaces.

    This means indoor workplaces like warehouses, manufacturing plants, kitchens, and laundries (among others) are likely to be the most affected by the addition of indoor workplaces. Some will face challenges in complying due to heat-generating machinery and processes or lack of ventilation.

    Heat Priority Days

    The current initiative identifies “heat priority days” as those days on which the heat index exceeds 80˚ F. The heat index, or “feels like” temperature, is a combination of temperature and humidity. This is the trigger for when heat inspections may be conducted by OSHA.

    However, this heat index is what is reported by the National Weather Service and applies only to outdoor workplaces in the shade. Working in direct sunlight can add up to 13° F to the equation. A weather report cannot gauge conditions inside a building. The actual heat index indoors will most likely be lower but in some cases might be higher. Businesses can obtain inexpensive wall thermometers designed to measure heat and humidity indoors that have a scale to approximate heat index.

    If a more accurate calculation of indoor heat exposure is required, a Wet Bulb Globe Thermometer (WBGT) is recommended. The WBGT measures temperature, humidity, radiant heat (equipment and processes), and wind (fans, porta coolers, natural ventilation).

    Work/Rest Schedules

    In addition to hydration, work/rest schedules need to be adjusted based on type of work and the level of the heat index. Examples of light, moderate, and heavy work is provided by OSHA here. This resource also has a wealth of information about heat stress that will help you formalize your company’s program.

    The type of work dictates frequency of rest breaks. For example, if doing light work, your employees can perform normal work activities up to a heat index of 105° F. If doing heavy work, a 15-minute rest break is recommended every hour when the heat index reaches 95° F.

    OSHA Heat Enforcement Inspections

    If OSHA should inspect your workplace, here is what they will check on:

    • Is there a written program?
    • How did the employer monitor ambient temperature(s) and levels of work exertion at the worksite?
    • 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 (earlier start times, and employee/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?

    If your business has any heat-related violations, they will be issued under the General Duty Clause, Section 5a of the OSH Act, which states “Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees’ employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees”.

    In order to issue a General Duty Clause citation OSHA must prove:

    1. The employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which its employees were exposed.
    2. The hazard was recognized,
    3. The hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm, and
    4. A feasible and useful method to correct the hazard was available.

    In conclusion, heat is a hazard that most employers at indoor and outdoor workplaces have been aware of for some time. Most have addressed it in some fashion, such as adding fans, coolers, easy access to cool water, and appropriate cool down breaks. OSHA sums it up as ensuring that workers are provided with “Water, Rest, and Shade.”

    Contact an Agent

    Michael Hogan, CSP

    Michael Hogan is a Sr. Risk Control Consultant with SWBC Insurance Services. His long-tenured work histories with noted companies such as Hartford Insurance, Aon Risk Services, and Comprehensive Safety Resources, a safety consulting firm, has equipped him with the skills necessary to understand the risk management business. Learning from his experiences of working with clients throughout the U.S. has given him the capability to share effective methods that companies can use to continually improve their risk management program and positively affect the bottom line.

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