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What Companies Need to Know About OSHA’s New Heat Illness Rules
Thanks to the ongoing effects of climate change, 18 of the last 19 summers have been the hottest on record. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that between 2015 and 2019, environmental heat cases resulted in an average of 35 fatalities per year and an average of 2,700 cases that resulted in days away from work.
However, the total number of heat-related fatalities may be underreported and improperly diagnosed. The cause of death is often listed as a heart attack when the actual cause or aggravating cause may have been exposure to a heat-related hazard. Heat-related illnesses range from heat cramps to heat stroke, which can potentially lead to death. To protect workers from heat-related illnesses and injuries, OSHA announced a new National Emphasis Program (NEP) on April 12, 2022.
Let’s look at what this news means for your business and what your next steps should be.
OSHA Can Conduct Inspections on 80 degrees Fahrenheit+ Heat Index Days
OSHA is focusing on reducing exposure to indoor and outdoor heat-related hazards that result in on-the-job illness, injury and death. The NEP consists of targeted inspections, outreach and compliance assistance.
The NEP authorizes OSHA to conduct pre-planned inspections of high-risk worksites on “heat priority days” where the heat index—of “feel like” temperature—is expected to be 80 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
Here are a few scenarios where OSHA could and would likely inspect for heat stress.
- Scenario 1: Facility has a reportable injury, such as an inpatient hospitalization because of employee heart attack, and the heat index was above 80 the day of the incident.
- Scenario 2: Employee complaint to OSHA about unsafe work conditions related to heat.
- Scenario 3: Pre-planned inspection for combined NEPs subject to the industry such as Forklift, Noise and Heat.
More Than 70 Industries are Considered At-Risk for Heat Illness
OSHA targets more than 70 high-risk industries, including general industry, construction, maritime and agriculture. The agency based its decision on factors such as heat-related illness incidence rates, the number of employee days away caused by those incidents and the number of heat-related violations.
OSHA will continue to inspect other industries as well, based on high incidence rates and/or employee complaints about heat hazards.
Know What OSHA Will Look For During an Inspection
In the NEP, OSHA specifically states that the Certified Safety and Health Officer (CSHO) will review/inspect a number of heat illness-related compliance procedures and documents. It’s important to prepare for this scenario—in case OSHA comes knocking—with the following:
- Supply OSHA 300 Logs and 301 Incident reports (if required by that industry).
- Interview workers for symptoms of headache, dizziness, fainting, dehydration or other conditions that may indicate heat-related illnesses, including both new employees and any employees who have recently returned to work.
- Determine if the employer has a heat illness and injury program addressing heat exposure, and consider the following:
- Is there a written program?
- How did the employer monitor ambient temperature(s) and levels of work exertion at the worksite?
- Was there unlimited cool water that was easily accessible to the employees?
- Did the employer require additional breaks for hydration?
- Were there scheduled rest breaks?
- Was there access to a shaded area?
- Did the employer provide time for acclimatization of new and returning workers?
- Was a “buddy” system in place on hot days?
- Were administrative controls used (earlier start times, and employee/job rotation) to limit heat exposures?
- Did the employer provide training on heat illness signs, how to report signs and symptoms, first aid, how to contact emergency personnel, prevention, and the importance of hydration?
4. Identify/review activities relevant to heat-related hazards. These can include, but are not limited to:
- Potential sources of heat-related illnesses (e.g., working in direct sunlight, a hot vehicle, or areas with hot air, near a gas engine, furnace, boiler or steam lines).
- The use of heavy or bulky clothing or equipment, including personal protective equipment.
- Estimate workload exertions by observing the types of job tasks performed by employees and whether those activities can be categorized as moderate, heavy or very heavy work, considering both average workload and peak workload.
- Duration of exposure during which a worker is continuously or repeatedly performing moderate to strenuous activities.
Mitigate Heat Illness Before It Happens
The best defense your company has against heat illness (and related litigation) is to mitigate it before it happens.
A good place to start is OSHA’s heat safety app, which measures heat index, provides heat illness risk and gives you protective measures you should take with your workforce. OSHA also has a number of employer resources for preventing heat injuries. It’s also a good idea to educate yourself about the risk factors for and physical signs of heat illness, and get more familiar with the National Weather Service Heat Index.
Heat illness training is of paramount importance to mitigate injuries. Training should include ongoing safety briefs and reminders. You should even consider creating your own heat illness checklist to ensure you’re taking all of the appropriate measures needed to protect workers, which would include things such as adequate access to water and shade, what to do in emergencies and worker training schedules.
As you create or modify your heat-illness prevention plan, keep these questions in mind:
- Who will be on your heat illness prevention team? They will check the heat index, monitor jobsite conditions, implement proper controls and provide supplies and equipment to workers.
- Who will be responsible for monitoring workers’ health on individual job sites during high heat index days?
- Have you allowed for acclimatization for new and returning employees? (Most injuries happen in the first few days of working in high-heat environments.)
- Do you need to consider providing additional breaks, shade and water?
- Does each jobsite provide access to proper personal protective equipment, such as evaporative cooling vests and large fans?
- Do you need to up the frequency of jobsite reminders for sunscreen application and hydration?
- Do your procedures adequately address the need for rapid response to heat illness once it occurs?
A Federal Standard Isn’t Far Behind
The NEP for heat illness isn’t a federal requirement or standard, which means your company isn’t legally required to implement safety procedures to mitigate heat illness. Instead, it signals areas where OSHA will pay closer attention. But a federal standard isn’t far behind.
In order to avoid hefty fines, avoid reputation damage and save lives, companies should act now to implement heat illness mitigation procedures and training.
As with any regulation or recommendation, be sure you are complying with all local, state and federal laws. Some states have their own regulations regarding heat-related illness, and some states have their own hazard-avoidance regulations that exceed OSHA requirements.