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Protecting Employees from Heat in Light of Climate Change

August 24, 2021 - minute read

Global climate change comes with an extreme cost. Worldwide, at least 5 million people die each year from extreme temperatures. But while excessive heat and cold conditions are nothing new on planet earth, their record-breaking fluctuations in recent years have come to affect nearly every type of industry, job site and geographic location.

Last year's heat waves and accompanying wildfires in the Western U.S. subjected more than 31 million people to temperatures as high as 116 degrees. Oregon and Washington, alone, saw an additional 600 deaths than what is typical from last summer’s record-shattering heat. As an employer, you should be concerned.

OSHA Concerns for Rising Temperatures

While there are currently no federal policies that govern heat-related illnesses, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does enforce violations related to heat under its general clause for providing a safe workplace. After all, the tangible effects of global warming cannot be allowed to sideline your workers or cost human lives.

To better support the most effected industries, OSHA created a general "heat index" guide to help you assess risks to employees. That said, the guide doesn’t create clear temperature thresholds and actionable standards for safeguarding employees directly. It focuses more on helping your worksite supervisors prepare and implement hot weather plans.

There will certainly be more to come from OSHA on this issue in the days ahead. The concern surrounding heat waves and wildfires has become so substantial that OSHA has placed a new “heat illness rule” at the top of its list of agenda items for the Biden Administration.

UPDATE: In April 2022, OSHA released the National Emphasis Program (NEP), which encourages employers to protect workers from heat hazards, establishes heat priority days when temperatures exceed 80 degrees F and more. As OSHA explains, "The danger of extreme heat increases each year due to continuing effects of climate change."

The Cost of Heat on Manual Laborers

It doesn’t matter if you oversee distribution centers or outdoor job sites, your most valuable asset will always be your employees. Among those most affected by sun exposure and risky temperatures are manual laborers. Indoor factory workers and warehouse teams who wear protective gear but don’t have air conditioning are most at risk, according to studies on the effects of heat stress on indoor and outdoor workers. Farm hands and construction teams also face higher risks.

Among the most common effects of excessive heat exposure are headaches (or migraines), vomiting and heat strokes. Unfortunately, heart attacks and kidney complications are a growing concern, as well. Kidney failure and “chronic kidney disease of unknown origin” (CKDU) are even being traced to occupational factors like heat stress.

From a business standpoint, heat-related illnesses leave you with no choice but to ask employees to leave your workforce for expensive and time-consuming recoveries. The good news is that heat stress is something you can actively combat by making adjustments to your operation.

Employer Solutions for Combatting the Heat

Here are a few proactive solutions to help manage your employees safety as temperatures continue to rise:

  • Make worker safety part of your company culture. It’s never a bad idea to include heat-related advisories and specific protocols as part of your operational plans. For example, you might consider implementing a seasonal program that requires employees to take water breaks and rest in the shade at set intervals.
  • Shifting work schedules around to avoid the worst heat of the day. Moving the workday up to earlier in the day or having a recess to avoid midday heat are two solid methods for keeping employees from being exposed to extreme temperatures. To keep productivity high, you could even give employees the options to work at night (provided you have adequate lighting and safety precautions in place).
  • Find ways to discourage employees from giving up their breaks. Some employment specialists have suggested paying employees by the hour instead of by output to discourage workers from forgoing regular breaks during the hottest months of the year. If that’s not possible for your operation, it may be worthwhile to make breaks more enticing by providing misting stations, access to cold beverages, or areas to fully lie down.
  • Adhere to state heat protectant laws. Many states have taken it upon themselves to create mandates surrounding heat. California and Oregon, in particular, are leading the movement towards creating temporary emergency rules. In California, there are specific provisions for agriculture, construction, landscaping, and oil and gas extraction. Be sure you are up-to-date on your state’s heat-related employment legislation.

At EPAY Systems, we understand the complexities of managing an hourly workforce. We provide flexible workforce management software that can adapt with you through fluctuating conditions. We even offer real-time alerts and safe workday attestation options for each and every season, so you know you’re doing your part in safeguarding your employees’ health.

Our team of HR specialists is committed to keeping you abreast of compliance news and the latest solutions for your industry. Subscribe to our blog for more tips on managing hourly workers today!

Filed Under: Compliance Workforce Management OSHA