If You Can’t Stand the Heat . . .You’re Not Alone: OSHA Kicks Off its Annual Heat Illness Campaign

by Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.

On May 22, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced that it was bringing back its heat illness prevention campaign for the fourth straight year. The campaign primarily targets industries with workers exposed to the heat, such as agriculture, construction, landscape maintenance, tree trimmers, and oil and gas drilling and servicing. It also targets industries in which work is performed indoors in hot areas, such as the restaurant and dry cleaning industries. The campaign reminds employers to provide employees with plenty of water, shade, and rest during the summer months. OSHA is devoting much attention to the topic, which inspired the agency’s first and only app (available for free online at iTunes and the Google Android store).

OSHA does not have a standard for heat illness and relies on the General Duty Clause to cite employers it feels are not adequately protecting workers from the heat. How then, do employers know how much water, shade, or rest to provide employees? Two courses of action would almost practically assure compliance.

One would be to follow the guidance on OSHA’s website and its smartphone app and establish a heat illness prevention program. While not exhaustive, OSHA’s resources provide a good overview of universal recommendations for employers and workers seeking to combat heat illness: drink water throughout the day (ideally four cups of water every hour for outdoor workers) and small amounts often, even when not thirsty; wear light-colored clothing; pace work and gradually build up (acclimatize) to the heaviest work; modify work and rest periods; monitor workers for potential heat illness symptoms, such as excessive sweating, headaches, dizziness, and confusion; and train workers to recognize the risk factors, on the importance of acclimatization, on how to prevent heat illness, and emergency response. The app is simple to use—simply plug in your work area’s high temperature for the day and its humidity levels, and the app provides recommendations.

The second method would be to follow California’s heat illness standard—in place since about 2005—which provides specific requirements for water consumption (one quart per employee per hour for the entire shift), shade access (sufficient to allow one-fourth of the employees on a shift to sit under comfortably), and rest period requirements (breaks of no fewer than five minutes at a time, as needed). (Of course, if your work site is in California, compliance with the Cal/OSHA standard is compulsory.) Cal/OSHA standards apply to certain industries whenever the outdoor temperature reaches 85 degrees and kicks into “high heat procedures” when the temperature exceeds 95 degrees.

In 2013, federal OSHA issued 13 General Duty Clause citations to employers related to heat illness. Several were related to fatalities involving heat stress, but some citations were related to employee complaints. Since 2010, the State of California has issued more citations for violations of the heat illness standard than for most any other violation of a workplace safety standard in the state.

OSHA considers the heat illness prevention campaign to be a high priority, so employers should expect it to become an annual event and plan accordingly. As the summer heats up, employers may want to consider implementing the following tips.

  • Water consumption. Employers should consider using bottled water, as opposed to a container of potable water. Not only is the water cleaner, it is easier to track how much to bring and how much employees consume.
  • Shade access. Both federal OSHA and California’s agency, the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH or Cal/OSHA) seem to favor the “college tailgate” type of canvas shades, which are relatively cheap, durable, easy to assemble, and provide plenty of room for employees. (Note that permitting workers to sit in a vehicle generally does not qualify as compliance with shade access standards, unless the vehicle is running with good air conditioning.)
  • Rest periods. Rest breaks are more subjective. While many affected employers implement mandatory rest periods of durations depending on the temperature (with stop work orders when the temperature becomes dangerously high, such as over 105 degrees), each employee subjectively acclimates to the heat. One employee may only need a few minutes of rest every few hours; another may need 10 to 15 minutes every hour. Employers should consider adopting a buddy system to encourage employees who work together and in close proximity to watch for and quickly spot the first signs of heat illness in their coworkers.


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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