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September 24, 2021
OSHA launches heat stress initiatives

On September 20, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced “enhanced and expanded efforts” to address worker exposures to excessive heat and heat-related illnesses. The agency will develop a National Emphasis Program (NEP) and workplace heat standards, according to a White House announcement of interagency efforts to address heat hazards.

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An advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) on heat illness prevention in outdoor and indoor work settings will be published next month in the Federal Register, according to the White House. OSHA will seek input on heat stress thresholds, heat acclimatization planning, exposure monitoring, and strategies to protect workers. While OSHA has been developing an NEP, the agency has also launched a heat-related hazard enforcement initiative.

California, Oregon, and Washington have heat hazard standards, and Minnesota has a state standard for hot and cold environments, but there is no current federal standard. OSHA’s heat-related enforcement relies on the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission has characterized OSHA’s reliance on the General Duty Clause as a “gotcha” or “catch-all” for hazards without formal standards.

The enforcement initiative prioritizes heat-related interventions and inspections on days when the heat index exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Under OSHA’s enforcement initiative, area directors will take the following steps:

  • Prioritize inspections of heat-related complaints, referrals, and employer-reported illnesses, and initiate an on-site investigation where possible.
  • Instruct compliance safety and health officers (CSHOs), during their travels to jobsites, to conduct an intervention—providing the agency’s heat poster/wallet card and discussing the importance of easy access to cool water, cooling areas, and acclimatization—or open an inspection when they observe employees performing strenuous work in hot conditions.
  • Expand the scope of other inspections to address heat-related hazards where worksite conditions or other evidence indicates these hazards may be present.

The planned NEP will build upon the agency’s Regional Emphasis Program on heat illness in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas (Region 6) focused on outdoor workers.

OSHA also is forming a National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH) heat injury and illness prevention working group, according to the agency.

“Amid changing climate, the growing frequency and intensity of extreme heat events is increasing the dangers workers face, especially for workers of color who disproportionately work in essential jobs in tough conditions,”  Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said in an agency statement.

OSHA still lacks a political leader. In April, President Joe Biden nominated Doug Parker, chief of California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA), to lead OSHA, but the Senate has yet to confirm Parker. OSHA is led by Acting Assistant Secretary James Frederick.

“Over the past few weeks, I have traveled across the country to see firsthand the devastating human and economic toll of extreme weather exacerbated by climate change,” President Biden said in a statement.

The June 2021 Pacific Northwest heat wave would have been virtually impossible without climate change, a rapid analysis concluded. Average temperatures for the Lower 48 states during meteorological summer (June-August) this year was 74.0° Fahrenheit, 2.6°F above average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tying the extreme heat of the Dust Bowl in 1936 for the warmest summer on record. The White House called excessive heat the “nation’s leading weather-related killer” in its announcement of an interagency to protect workers and communities from extreme heat.

The federal interagency response includes OSHA along with the Departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security, Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently reported California farmworkers still are at risk for heat-related illnesses despite employers’ compliance with state regulations. The institute also cautioned landscaping and tree care employers to train and monitor employees for rhabdomyolysis, a sometimes fatal breakdown of muscle tissue caused by heat and exhaustion.

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