When The Summer Wind Comes Blowing In: Remember OSHA’s Heat Stress Guidance

Cozen O'Connor
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On June 19, 2017, American Airlines announced it cancelled approximately 45 regional flights due to intense summer heat in the Phoenix area and there were record highs recorded in the region. The intense heat waves serves as a good reminder that OSHA has guidance on addressing heat stress and employers may need to do more than simply offering employees a cold beverage or an extra rest period although certainly water, rest, and shade are some ways to prevent heat stress illnesses according to OSHA. In fact, OSHA launched a Heat Illness Prevention campaign in 2011 designed to educate employers and employees on the dangers of working in the heat and the phrase “water, rest, and shade” is OSHA’s tag line for the campaign.

According to OSHA, dozens of workers die and thousands more become ill while working in extreme heat or humid conditions. OSHA further states that approximately 40 percent of heat-related work deaths occur in the construction industry but that employees in any industry could be affected and without regard to age or physical condition. Heat stroke is the most serious heat illness but other illnesses may include heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat rash.

Although there is no specific standard, OSHA has cited employers for failing to abate recognized heat hazards under the general duty clause. According to OSHA, a Heat Illness Prevention Program should contain the following key elements:

  • Person designated to Oversee the Program
  • Hazard identification
  • Water, Rest, Shade Message
  • Acclimatization
  • Modified Work Schedules
  • Training
  • Monitoring for Signs and Symptoms
  • Emergency Planning and Response

Risk factors that should be part of hazard identification include: (1) high temperature and humidity, direct sun exposure and no breeze or wind; (2) heavy physical labor; (3) no recent exposure to hot workplaces; (4) low liquid intake; and (5) waterproof clothing.

Of particular note is that workers new to outdoor jobs are generally most at risk for heat-related illnesses. OSHA statistics at one point showed that almost half of the heat-related illness that were investigated by Cal/OSHA involved a worker who was on their first day of work and in 80% of the cases the worker involved had only been on the job for four or few days. This is why it is very important to gradually increase the workload or allow more frequent breaks to help new employees or those returning to work after a time away to build tolerance to hot conditions, i.e., acclimatization.

OSHA also encourages employers to use the heat index (as opposed to just air temperature alone) to determine appropriate heat stress abatement strategies and protocols. The “heat index” is a single value that takes both temperature and humidity into account. The higher the heat index, the hotter the weather feels. Indeed, OSHA has a mobile application available to download that allows supervisors or workers to calculate the heat index for their worksite and based on the heat index, displays the risk level and offers reminders about proactive measures.

OSHA has also published a Fact Sheet on protecting workers from the effects of heat which is available at: https://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/data_Hurricane_Facts/heat_stress.pdf

Although Alexander Graham Bell may have been right when he said, “[c]oncentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus,” employers would be wise to avoid allowing employees to get sun burned while working.

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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