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OSHA Expanding Measures to Protect Workers from Extreme Heat

On September 20, 2021, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a new heat-related hazards enforcement initiative “to combat the hazards associated with extreme heat exposure, both indoors and outdoors” and prevent heat-related illnesses.

To emphasize its concern and take necessary action, OSHA is implementing a National Emphasis Program (NEP) on heat inspections and launching a rulemaking process to develop a workplace heat standard. As part of its efforts, the agency is forming a National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health Heat Injury and Illness Prevention Work Group to provide better understanding of challenges and to identify and share best practices to protect workers.

What is A Heat Related Illness?

The most common type of heat related illness is a heat stroke which occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature. When heat stroke occurs, the body’s temperature can rise to 106 degrees Fahrenheit or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not given. Other types of heat related illnesses include but are not limited to heat exhaustion, rhabdomyolysis, heat cramps and heat rash.

Additional information on heat related illnesses is available from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

What is a NEP?

National Emphasis Programs (NEPs) are temporary programs that focus OSHA’s resources on particular hazards and high-hazard industries. Existing and potential new emphasis programs are evaluated using inspection data, injury and illness data, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports, peer-reviewed literature, analysis of inspection findings, and other available information sources.”

Who Will the NEP Apply To?

The NEP will apply to indoor and outdoor worksites in general industry, construction, agriculture and maritime where potential heat related hazards exist.

  • Indoor Worksites: Examples of indoor worksites where potential heat related hazards may exist include, but are not limited to ceramic plants, glass production facilities, rubber products factories, electrical utilities (particularly boiler rooms), bakeries, commercial kitchens, laundries, food canneries, warehouses without adequate climate control and chemical plants.
  • Outdoor Worksites: Examples of outdoor worksites where potential heat related hazards may exist include, but are not limited agriculture, landscaping, construction operations, refining gas/oil and well operations, waste collection activities and package and mail delivery.

How Will the NEP Be Enforced?

While OSHA implemented an intervention and enforcement initiative recently to prevent and protect workers from heat related illnesses and deaths while working in hazardous hot environments, this newly established initiative will prioritize heat-related interventions and inspections of work activities on days when the heat index exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

As part of the enforcement efforts, OSHA Area Directors across the nation will:

  • Prioritize inspections of heat related complaints, referrals and employer-reported illnesses and initiate an onsite investigation where possible.
  • Instruct compliance safety and health officers, during their travels to job sites, to conduct an intervention (providing the agency’s heat poster/wallet card, discuss the importance of easy access to cool water, cooling areas and acclimatization) or opening an inspection when they observe employees performing strenuous work in hot conditions.
  • Expand the scope of other inspections to address heat related hazards where worksite conditions or other evidence indicates these hazards may be present.

According to employment law firm, Littler, “Employers in targeted industries should also be aware that during an OSHA inspection, the scope of the inspection may be expanded to include any plain-view hazards that come to the attention of the compliance officer.”

What’s OSHA Planning to Do Next?

OSHA does not currently have a heat standard. Any heat exposure related citations are currently issued under OSHA’s General Duty Clause. As a result, OSHA is expected to publish an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) on heat illness prevention in outdoor and indoor work settings in the Federal Register next month. This will be a big advancement in establishing a permanent heat standard.

Next Steps for Employers

Employers should prepare for inspections by reviewing their procedures and developing a process to ensure that they are monitoring outdoor and/or indoor temperatures, ensuring employees are: (1) educated on signs of heat illness and what to do when they suspect a heat related illness is occurring, (2) have access to shade and water, (3) provided with adequate breaks to cool down, and (4) provided access to ventilation or cooling areas in their workplace.

HR Works, headquartered in Upstate New York, is a human resource management outsourcing and consulting firm serving clients throughout the United States for over thirty years. HR Works provides scalable strategic human resource management and consulting services, including: affirmative action programs; benefits administration outsourcing; HRIS self-service technology; full-time, part-time and interim on-site HR managers; HR audits; legally reviewed employee handbooks and supervisor manuals; talent management and recruiting services; and training of managers and HR professionals.