Workplace heat exposure rises on OSHA radar

Sources: Occupational Safety and Health Administration; CP staff

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is initiating enhanced measures to protect workers better in hot environments and reduce the dangers of exposure to ambient heat. While heat illness is largely preventable and incidents widely under reported, thousands of workers are sickened each year by workplace heat exposure, agency officials contend. In 2019, they add, 43 workers died from heat illness and at least 2,400 others suffered serious effects.

Consequently, OSHA is implementing an enforcement initiative on heat-related hazards, developing a National Emphasis Program on heat inspections, and launching a rulemaking process to develop a workplace heat standard. In addition, 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 identify and share best practices to protect workers.

OSHA recently implemented an intervention and enforcement initiative prioritizing work activity interventions and inspections on days when the heat index exceeds 80°F; it applies to construction and general industry indoor or outdoor worksites. On days when temperatures indicate higher risk of heat-related illnesses, OSHA will increase enforcement efforts. Employers are encouraged to implement intervention methods on heat priority days proactively, including regularly taking breaks for water, rest, shade, training workers on how to identify common symptoms; what to do when a worker suspects a heat-related illness is occurring; and, taking periodic measurements to determine workers’ heat exposure.

“Millions of workers face serious hazards from high temperatures both outdoors and indoors. The growing frequency and intensity of extreme heat events is increasing the dangers workers face,” says Department of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. “My priority is to make sure we are taking appropriate action to keep workers healthy and safe on the job.”

OSHA Area Directors across the nation, he adds, will:

• Prioritize inspections of heat-related complaints, referrals and employer reported illnesses and initiate an onsite investigation where possible.
• Instruct safety and health officers 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 such hazards may be present.

The agency will issue an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking next month on heat injury and illness prevention. The action will initiate a comment period allowing the agency to gather diverse perspectives and technical expertise on topics including heat stress thresholds, heat acclimatization planning, exposure monitoring, and worker protection strategies.

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