Workplace heat-safety measures: Training vs. temperature triggers

Ahead of a month or more of vacation for some Washington, D.C. regulars, the White House instructed the Department of Labor to issue a first ever Hazard Alert in response to an unusually hot July. The agency will ramp up enforcement of heat-safety violations, increasing inspections in high-risk industries like construction, while its Occupational Safety and Health Administration belabors a national standard for workplace heat-safety rules. 

The kneejerk White House gesture followed introduction of companion House and Senate bills directing OSHA to issue an enforceable heat standard for workers exposed to high temperatures, ideally by 2025. “Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness, Injury, and Fatality Prevention Act of 2023’’ is named for a California grape picker who succumbed to heat stroke complications in 2004 after reportedly toiling for 10 hours in 105° fields. 

While unlikely to move in the House, notes the Associated General Contractors of America, the legislation stands to accelerate an OSHA timeline for a “one-size-fits-all national heat standard.” In response to a similar measure four years ago, AGC reminded federal lawmakers of the industry’s proactive work to address heat-related hazards for construction workers. AGC also notes how lawmakers’ two-year window runs counter to a regulatory process that commenced in October 2021 with OSHA’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Heat Injury and Illness Prevention in Outdoor and Indoor Work Settings. 

The Construction Industry Safety Coalition (CISC) addressed the notice on behalf of AGC, American Society of Concrete Contractors, Associated Builders & Contractors, Mason Contractors Association of America, National Association of Home Builders and 25 other groups. Any OSHA regulatory approach must be simple and adaptable, CISC noted, respecting construction environment fluidity, and should integrate the key concepts of “Water, Rest, and Shade” versus one imposing complicated requirements, including those triggered by temperature thresholds. 

“Safety programs are only effective if they are implemented correctly. The more complicated a standard is, the greater the chance that it will not be implemented or enforced by an employer. For this reason, any regulation should avoid formulaic requirements (i.e., 15 minutes of rest for every 45 minutes of work) and should instead set forth practical requirements and achievable parameters,” CISC told the agency.

It also noted that any regulator approach addressing heat injury and illness must account for unique climatic conditions, cautioning how ambient air temperature is not a feasible trigger because such a reading does not capture humidity, solar load, and acclimatization. “A regulation based on the outdoor air temperature alone does not consider the distinct nature of certain indoor and outdoor construction worksites that may increase the amount of heat in the environment, such as working in an indoor confined space or working outdoors near heat-generating machinery,” CISC observed. “A regulatory trigger does not account personal risk factors of the individual construction worker, such as fitness level or age, nor does it factor exertional activity. CISC believes that a comprehensive heat illness and injury regulation must focus on training for individual workers above all else.”

To that sound perspective for OSHA and federal lawmakers, I would add: Construction industry employers are contending with a tight labor market and need little incentive to avoid crew disruptions or downtime. Recruiting challenges and productivity demands have rarely, if ever, given employers greater incentive to maintain conditions that protect their most valuable assets.

Don Marsh
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