Does your company have a heat illness prevention program in place? Someday soon, you may be required to in order to maintain OSHA compliance. Last month, U.S. Representatives Judy Chu of California and Raul Grijalva of Arizona introduced a new bill, H.R. 3668, directing OSHA to develop federal protections for workers exposed to excessive heat.
The Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act—named after a vineyard worker who died of heatstroke after picking grapes in 105° temperatures—addresses what many labor advocates view as an omission in OSHA compliance mandates.
Currently, there is no federal statute, although OSHA does administer a heat awareness campaign. OSHA can only police heat-related injuries and deaths through the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s general duty clause, which requires employers to provide a safe workplace.
California, Washington, Minnesota and even the U.S. military have instituted occupational heat standards, recognizing that excessive heat poses a very real health and safety threat. Whether or not H.R. 3668 passes, now is an excellent time for employers whose workers may be impacted to consider creating—or reinforcing—their own heat prevention policies to protect their workforce as well as their business.
The Heat is on: Know Your Risk
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, occupational heat exposure led to 37 deaths and 2,830 injuries and illnesses in 2015. Of the 37 fatalities, 33 occurred between June and September. Considering that our plant is warming—according to NASA, 18 of the 19 warmest years on record have occurred since 2000—this trend is likely to continue, barring intervention.
Workers who labor outdoors are at greatest risk. According to OSHA, high-risk industries include agriculture, construction, landscaping, mail/package delivery, and oil and gas operations.
However, employees who work indoors in non-temperature-controlled environments or in proximity to heat-producing equipment are vulnerable. High-risk settings include bakeries, kitchens, laundries, boiler rooms, iron and steel mills, warehouses, factories with furnaces, and fire services.
Costs and Consequences for Employers
For employers, the failure to protect workers against heat-related illnesses can result in an unwelcome aftermath, including individual and class-action lawsuits. They may also be subject to OSHA fines under its general duty clause.
Beyond legal liability, heat exposure lowers worker productivity—according to one study, by as much as 10%. Excessive heat diminishes physical and mental capabilities, increasing the risk of accidents. In addition, a workplace-related illness or death has a devastating impact on workforce morale.
If you’re in a high-turnover industry, know that your new hires are at the greatest risk. For example, in a Cal/OSHA investigation of 25 heat-related incidents, 80% of workers involved had been on the job four or fewer days. These workers needed time for their bodies to acclimatize to the hot conditions.
Anatomy of a Workplace Heat Illness Prevention Program
H.R. 3668 mandates many of the same requirements OSHA currently offers as guidelines. When developing a corporate heat illness prevention program, consider these action items:
- Designate a manager to oversee and champion your program.
- Develop a written heat illness prevention plan, to be included in your employee handbook and during onboarding.
- Create a written emergency response plan. Identify who will call 911, who will administer first aid, what that should consist off, etc.
- Give new workers time to acclimatize to the heat. Experts recommend allowing workers to build tolerance over several weeks by gradually increasing heat exposure.
- Conduct regular training for workers and managers. This should include recognizing symptoms of heat stress and how to respond.
- Provide workers water, shade/relief, and rest breaks. Ideally, workers should have continual access to fresh, cool water and be required to take periodic heat breaks.
- Provide workers with heat-prevention supplies, such as high-tech cooling vests, UV-blocking hats, and sunglasses.
- Screen and monitor workers for signs of heat-related illness. In addition, encourage workers to self-identify health problems that are aggravated by heat stress.
- Make other accommodations as necessary, such as changing the work schedule so the highest-risk tasks are completed during the coolest time of day and making engineering changes like improving ventilation.
- Consider arming managers and/or workers with the OSHA-NIOSH Heat Safety Tool. Available in English and Spanish, this free app raises heat safety awareness by allowing users to calculate the heat index and current risk level for their worksite, while sending automatic reminders for taking protective measures.
For the record, EPAY’s HCM system helps employers maintain labor compliance in its many forms, including OSHA compliance. However, heat safety is one area where employers may not want to wait for federal legislation to catch up to actual workplace conditions.
For more specifics regarding OSHA’s current recommendations, download OSHA’s Fact Sheet on Protecting Workers from the Effects of Heat.