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July 31, 2023
OSHA heat

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a heat hazard alert reminding employers of their obligation to protect workers against heat illness or injury in outdoor and indoor workplaces, the agency announced July 27.

OSHA also announced it would intensify enforcement where workers are exposed to heat hazards, focusing on geographic areas and industries with the most vulnerable workers, especially in high-risk industries like agriculture and construction.

The OSHA announcement coincided with a White House announcement of new actions to protect workers from extreme heat and new investments to protect communities, as “historically high temperatures break records and expose millions of people to the serious dangers of heat in the workplace.”

Actions unveiled in the White House announcement also include a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) investment to improve weather forecasting and Interior Department investments to expand water storage and enhance climate resilience in California, Colorado, and Washington.

The OSHA heat hazard alert encouraged employers to, at a minimum:

  • Provide adequate cool water, rest breaks, and shade or cool rest areas for workers.
  • Give new and returning workers a period of heat acclimatization, and develop emergency response procedures for signs and symptoms of heat illnesses.
  • Train employees on prevention, signs, and symptoms of heat illness with procedures for immediate action if they or fellow employees appear to be suffering from heat illness.

“Historically high temperatures impact everyone and put our nation’s workers at high risk,” Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su said in an agency statement. “A workplace heat standard has long been a top priority for the Department of Labor, but rulemaking takes time and working people need help now.”

There are state heat illness prevention or hot environment standards in California, Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington but no current federal standard. In 2021, OSHA issued an advance notice of proposal rulemaking for a standard for heat injury and illness prevention in outdoor and indoor work settings. 

“Today, at the President’s request, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a heat hazard alert to make sure employers follow current standards and that workers across the country know their rights,” Su said. “This action, combined with OSHA’s increased heat-safety enforcement efforts, shows that we are determined to protect the safety and health of millions of people whose jobs become more hazardous in harsh weather.”

Last year, OSHA launched a National Emphasis Program (NEP) of outreach and enforcement to address indoor and outdoor heat hazards. The NEP targets workplaces in over 70 high-risk industries in indoor and outdoor work settings whenever the National Weather Service issues a heat warning or an advisory for a local area.

OSHA inspects workplaces following complaints, injuries, fatalities, and hospitalizations and issues citations using its authority under the General Duty Clause (§5(a)(1)) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

General Duty Clause citations are sometimes vacated upon review. The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission has a four-pronged test for reviewing General Duty Clause violations in which the Labor Department must show that:

  • “A condition or activity in the workplace presented a hazard.”
  • “The employer or its industry recognized this hazard.”
  • “The hazard was likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”
  • “A feasible and effective means existed to eliminate or materially reduce the hazard.”
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