Heat-Related Illness Prevention: Introduction to Federal and State Standards

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Heat-related illness can affect various industries and work environments. As temperatures rise this summer, it is important for businesses to have a plan to address heat-related illness to protect both the employer and its employees from avoidable harm. This article is the first in a three-part series and will highlight sources of federal and state standards related to heat-related illness. This three-part series is an expansion on last summer’s article on Heat-Related Illness Prevention.

Congress created Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) via the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (the “OSH Act”) to “ensure safe and healthful working conditions for workers by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.” In addition to OSHA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) was established by the OSH Act with the mission to “develop knowledge in the field of occupational safety and health and to transfer that knowledge into practice”. Both OSHA and NIOSH provide federal standards and guidance related to heat-related illness.

OSHA standards apply to most private sector employers as well as all federal agencies. Under the OSH Act, employers must provide a work environment that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” This duty extends to heat-related hazards that are likely to cause death or serious bodily harm. OSHA’s website provides helpful information on federal heat exposure standards and heat-related illness.

The NIOSH also supplies guidance for recommended standards related to heat stress. Congress tasked NIOSH with “recommending occupational safety and health standards and describing exposure levels that are safe for various periods of employment.” The original document, Criteria for a Recommended Standard: Occupational Exposure to Heat Environments, was published in 1972, revised in 1986 and most recently updated in 2016. The most recent revision includes updated information on heat-related illnesses, risk factors, physiological responses to heat, and recommendations for control and prevention. NIOSH encourages employers, professional associations, and labor organizations to use the information provided to inform workers and members about heat-related hazards.

In addition to the federal standards, Virginia is also considering a state specific heat-illness prevention standard. If adopted, Virginia would join California, Minnesota, and Washington in having state specific standards that are not addressed in the federal OSHA standards. The intent of the Virginia standard is to “reduce/eliminate employee injuries, illnesses, and fatalities due to exposure to excessive heat at indoor and outdoor places of work.” More information on the proposed Virginia heat-illness prevention standard can be found on the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry website.

Understanding how federal and state standards affect your heat-related illness prevention plan (HRIPP) is important to building an effective plan. Businesses should be sure to protect themselves by developing HRIPPs that are tailored to their industry and meet all applicable standards and regulations. The next article discusses the importance of creating a HRIPP.

*This article was authored with the assistance of Summer Associate, Peyton Farley.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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