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November 03, 2021
OSHA floats heat standard proposal

On October 27, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued an advance notice of proposal rulemaking on heat injury and illness prevention in outdoor and indoor work settings—the first step in developing a federal heat stress standard (86 FR 59309). The document contains 114 questions about a potential standard but no proposed regulatory text.

The agency is asking the public for information about heat-related issues it should consider in developing a standard, including the scope and application of the standard and what types of controls should be required. Comments are due December 27.

There is no current federal heat stress or heat illness prevention standard. OSHA investigates heat-related complaints, fatalities, and hospitalizations and has cited employers under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. California, Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington have permanent or emergency temporary heat stress standards. The advance notice includes summaries of the state standards and the worksites covered; triggering thresholds; and water, shade, break, acclimatization, training, response plan, medical monitoring, and recordkeeping requirements for each state. 

Possible application, scope, controls

The heat standard likely would apply to both indoor and outdoor work settings. While an analysis of heat-related illness enforcement investigations found that 80 percent of heat-related fatalities occurred in outdoor work environments, according to OSHA, 61 percent of cases of nonfatal heat-related illness occurred during or after work in an indoor work environment. The agency stated that climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme heat events and increasing daily average daytime and nighttime temperatures.

A federal heat standard could apply to hundreds of industries. OSHA reported 789 heat-related hospitalizations and 54 heat-related fatalities across nearly 275 industries among the agency’s inspections and violations cited. Over 230 industries across indoor and outdoor work settings have had at least 1 heat-related OSHA inspection since 2018.

A standard also could apply to small businesses; an assessment of workplace heat-
related fatalities found that almost half occurred in “very small establishments” with fewer than 10 employees.

OSHA is asking for information about the best metric for defining and assessing heat hazards using either ambient temperatures, heat index, or Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT). The agency also wants to know about the elements of successful employer-led heat injury and illness prevention programs and controls, both engineering and administrative controls; acclimatization protocols; and monitoring methods that could be included in a federal standard. OSHA is interested in planning and response best practices for heat-related emergencies.

The agency also has questions about worker training and engagement, as well as the benefits, costs, and economic impacts of a federal heat stress standard. It also is interested in the potential impacts on small entities.

Federal action on climate impacts

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) first developed criteria for a federal standard in 1972, updating its recommendations in 1986 and again in 2016. Labor unions and public health advocacy groups have repeatedly petitioned OSHA for a federal standard.

On September 20, the White House and OSHA announced “enhanced and expanded efforts” to address worker exposures to excessive heat and heat-related illnesses, including developing a federal standard and National Emphasis Program (NEP), as part of federal interagency efforts on climate resilience, environmental justice, and workplace safety.

“As we continue to see temperatures rise and records broken, our changing climate affects millions of America’s workers who are exposed to tough and potentially dangerous heat,” Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said in an agency statement. “We know a disproportionate number of people of color perform this critical work and they, like all workers, deserve protections.”

OSHA also launched a heat-related enforcement initiative September 1.

Doug Parker was confirmed October 25 as the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health—OSHA’s first permanent administrator since David Michaels left at the end of the Obama administration. Parker is the former head of California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA).

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