It's Well Past Time for OSHA to Act on Heat Stress

by Katie Tracy

August 11, 2016

Last month was the hottest July on record for several cities across the southern United States, thanks to a heat wave that brought extreme temperatures to most of the country. But even when temperatures aren't record-breaking, extreme heat can be dangerous and potentially fatal if proper precautions aren't taken. Between 2003 and 2012, more than 30 workers died annually from heat-related illnesses and injuries, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In 2014, 18 workers died and another 2,630 workers suffered injuries or illnesses related to excessive heat exposure. Yet OSHA has repeatedly declined to adopt a national standard, instead offering guidance to employers on preventing heat-related illnesses. 

Excessive heat exposure is a widely recognized occupational hazard for outdoor and indoor workers that can cause illnesses ranging from cramps to death. Heat can also raise the risk of injuries due to variations in working conditions like fogged-up safety glasses and cognitive impairment. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) first recommended OSHA adopt an occupational heat standard in 1972. Since then, NIOSH has twice updated its recommendations, first in 1986 and again in 2016. 

Despite these recommendations, OSHA has repeatedly declined to develop a national standard on excessive heat exposure. In response to NIOSH's 1972 recommendations, OSHA established the Standards Advisory Committee on Heat Stress to advise it on developing a standard, but the agency never followed through, and it even denied a rulemaking petition filed in 2011 by Public Citizen and several other public interest and workers' rights organizations. OSHA's typical response is that it's addressing heat by issuing General Duty Clause citations against employers when inspectors find heat-related hazards present at worksites and by raising awareness through its Heat Illness Prevention Campaign, which it started in 2012. Unfortunately, neither of these actions is adequate to protect workers. 

The General Duty Clause operates as a backstop enforcement mechanism, allowing OSHA to cite an employer for failing to protect workers from a recognized hazard that places them at risk of death or serious physical harm – e.g., excessive heat exposure. However, the agency rarely invokes this authority. According to OSHA, in 2012, 31 workers died and 4,120 suffered due to heat-related injuries and illnesses, yet the agency only cited employers in 17 cases

It's noteworthy that OSHA Region VI established an emphasis program for heat illness, which covers Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and all worksites under federal OSHA jurisdiction in New Mexico. The program began on Oct. 1, 2015, and is set to expire on Sept. 30, 2016. Under the program, on days where the National Weather Service issues a heat advisory in the area, inspectors can conduct limited inspections of outdoor job activities (subject to some exceptions) to ensure workers have been trained on heat hazards, drinking water and first aid supplies are available, and the employer has made provisions for workers to receive prompt medical attention in case of illness. Of course, even under the program, federal OSHA's enforcement is still limited to issuing a General Duty Clause citation. 

Despite the shortcomings of Region VI's emphasis program, it represents a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, though, no other region has yet to take similar action to target heat illness through focused inspections. 

Efforts to address heat in the workplace aren't much better in state-plan states – those states that operate their own occupational safety and health programs instead of federal OSHA. At present, California, Minnesota, and Washington are the only state-plan states that have adopted heat standards. Nonetheless, all three states' standards serve as useful models that could be used as the basis for action to protect workers in other state-plan states. 

Turning back to federal OSHA, beyond General Duty Clause citations, OSHA's efforts to protect workers from heat exposure are limited to its Heat Illness Prevention Campaign. Through this campaign, the agency makes available a number of resources on heat exposure and prevention, including a smartphone app that notifies users of the heat index for their location and provides an overview on preventing, identifying, and responding to heat-related illnesses and injuries. While the campaign is a step forward, it should be a supplement to – not a substitute for – a strong, enforceable national standard. And if any doubt lingers, a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on OSHA enforcement cases from 2012-2013 makes it unquestionably clear: "Although OSHA's Heat Illness Prevention Campaign's core message 'Water. Rest. Shade.' has been widely disseminated and reflects many similar public health messages, this review shows that some employers have not developed complete heat illness prevention programs." 

Even with OSHA's General Duty Clause enforcement and campaign efforts, workers continue to suffer from excessive heat exposure. On Aug. 1, OSHA cited La Espiga de Oro Inc., a tortilla factory in Houston, Texas, for 25 violations, including exposing workers to extreme heat. OSHA has also initiated investigations into three worker fatalities in Missouri over the past two months – two construction workers' deaths and a landscape employee who died on his fourth day on the job. 

No matter what has kept OSHA from taking meaningful action for the past four decades, it's critical that the agency begin developing an occupational heat exposure standard now. Dozens of studies on the impacts of climate change all point to heat exposure as a primary concern for workers and employers. (See here, here, and here). As temperatures rise, protecting workers will require more breaks or reduced work intensity, which is likely to create significant tension between workers and their employers. This, in turn, will necessitate OSHA intervention to make clear what is required by employers in terms of medical monitoring, engineering controls, and work practice controls and to protect workers from retaliation when they raise concerns about heat exposure or refuse to work in dangerous conditions.

Tagged as: OSHA heat stress
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Also from Katie Tracy

Katie Tracy, J.D., joined CPR as a workers’ rights policy analyst in May 2015. Her previous experience includes working for more than two years as a regulatory policy analyst at the Center for Effective Government, where she advocated for strong regulations to protect health, safety, and the environment.

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