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May 28, 2020
California employers must balance COVID-19, heat protections

California employers now must protect worker from both COVID-19 infections and heat illness as the National Weather Service (NWS) has issued extreme heat warnings for several parts of the state. The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) reminded employers they must assess each worksite and protect their workers from heat illness while also taking steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a respiratory illness caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. COVID-19 currently is widespread in the community and considered a workplace hazard.

California’s heat illness prevention standard applies to all outdoor workers, including those in agriculture, construction and landscaping. The standard also applies where workers spend a significant amount of time working outdoors such as security guards and groundskeepers, as well as delivery and transportation and drivers who spend time in non-air-conditioned vehicles.

NWS has issued heat advisories this week for Lake and Mendocino Counties, parts of northern Los Angeles County, and many parts of the San Francisco Bay Area.

While there is no corresponding federal standard for heat stress or heat illness prevention, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigates and cites incidents of worker heat illness under the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. A coalition led by Public Citizen has repeatedly petitioned OSHA and the Secretary of Labor for such a standard. House Democrats last year introduced legislation that would require OSHA to establish an emergency heat illness standard.

Under California’s heat illness prevention standard, employers with outdoor workers must take the following steps to prevent heat illness:

  • Develop and implement an effective written heat illness prevention plan that includes emergency response procedures;
  • Train all employees and supervisors on heat illness prevention;
  • Provide drinking water that is fresh, pure, suitably cool and free of charge so that each worker can drink at least 1 quart per hour, and encourage workers to do so; and
  • Provide shade when workers request it or when temperatures exceed 80 degrees Fahrenheit and encourage workers to take a cool-down rest in the shade for at least five minutes when they feel the need to do so to protect themselves from overheating – workers should not wait until they feel sick to cool down.

While protecting workers from heat illness, employers should provide cloth face coverings or allow workers to use their own to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, employers should be aware that wearing face coverings can make it more difficult to breathe and harder for a worker to cool off, so additional breaks may be needed to prevent overheating.

At this time, Cal/OSHA does not recommend that agricultural and other outdoor workers use surgical or respirator masks as face coverings.

Employers should ensure there is enough space and time for employees to take breaks as needed in adequate shade while also maintaining a safe distance from one another, according to the agency.

Extra infection prevention measures should be in place such as disinfecting commonly touched surfaces, including the water and restroom facilities.

While COVID-19 is considered a workplace hazard, California’s aerosol transmissible disease (ATD) standard does not apply to agriculture, construction, and landscaping employers.

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