July 18, 2019
By Todd B. Logsdon and Chantell C. Foley
While there are currently no federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards that govern employee safety when working in hot environments, there are efforts underway to change this. On July 10, 2019, House Democrats introduced the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act (H.R. 3668) which is intended, in part, to prevent heat illnesses in the workplace. The bill would give OSHA two years to propose a heat protection standard for indoor and outdoor work sites. OSHA would then have another 18 months to issue the final version of the rule. The legislation follows California’s outdoor heat illness prevention standard enacted in 2006. California’s legislation directed the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration to create a heat-stress prevention standard requiring employers to maintain written heat illness prevention programs. Like California’s requirements, H.R. 3668 directs OSHA to create a standard that would require employers to maintain written heat illness prevention programs. The programs would include provisions for monitoring heat conditions; providing protective clothing, water, shade, and paid rest breaks; allowing workers to acclimatize to heat; and require employers to have an emergency response plan. The Education and Labor Workforce Protections Subcommittee held a hearing on the bill on July 11.
What Should Employers Do Now?
Although OSHA currently does not have a specific standard on heat stress hazards, it has cited employers for exposing employees to excessively hot work environments under the General Duty Clause, which requires employers to keep the workplace free of recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm. A hazard is “recognized” if the employer actually recognizes it or it is generally recognized by the employer’s industry. An employer that fails to institute safety precautions for recognized heat hazards can face hefty fines. If a death occurs and OSHA finds the employer’s actions to be willful, an employer could face up to six months in jail. Therefore, it’s important for employers to take the appropriate precautions to reduce any potential liability.
Despite the lack of an OSHA standard, employers must take proactive precautionary steps to minimize the hazards associated with excessive temperatures as they are well-known. With this in mind, below are some guidelines to consider when trying to implement preventative plans.
- Provide Cool Water. Workers should drink plenty of water at regular intervals to avoid becoming dehydrated. According to OSHA, at least one pint of water per hour is needed. Workers should avoid drinking alcohol and caffeine (e.g., soft drinks) which actually cause the body to dehydrate. Thus, employers should provide a lot of cool water to workers close to the work area. This will help prevent worker dehydration.
- Allow Frequent Breaks. Employers should permit frequent rest periods with water breaks in shaded or air conditioned areas. Over exertion in hot weather can raise the body’s temperature to dangerous levels.
- Work Around the Heat. Employers should, to the extent possible, schedule the heaviest work during the coolest parts of the day. The early morning, late afternoon, and evening hours tend to have the coolest temperatures and, therefore, are the preferred times for physically taxing work.
- Help Employees Adjust. Improve a worker’s ability to tolerate extreme heat by gradually introducing them to working in a hot environment. To this end, allow workers to perform in hot environments for short periods and then slowly increase the length of their exposures to working in hot conditions.
- Allow Workers to Wear Cool Clothing. Employers should recommend or require employees wear clothing that is suitable for high temperatures and sun exposure. Keep in mind, however, that employees must still wear any personal protective equipment required by OSHA standards.
- Recognize and Respond to the Signs of Heat-Related Illnesses. Employees who work in hot environments should be monitored closely for any signs of heat stress and heat-related illnesses. Symptoms of heat exhaustion can include headache, dizziness, weakness, irritability, thirst, nausea, or vomiting. An employee suffering from a heat stroke may be confused, unable to think clearly, pass out, collapse, or have seizures, and may stop sweating. In the event an employee is suffering from a heat-related illness you should call a supervisor or 911 for help, have someone stay with the worker until help arrives, move the worker to a cooler/shaded area, remove outer clothing, fan and mist the worker with water; apply ice (ice bags or ice towels), and provide cool drinking water, if able to drink.
- Train Your Employees. All employees should be trained about the hazards leading to heat stress, how to prevent them and how to identify and appropriately respond to the symptoms of heat stress both in themselves and others.
Regardless of whether, or until, H.R. 3668 becomes law, by following the above guidelines, employers can help ensure that neither they, nor their workers fall victim to heat illness. Additional information and guidance can be found on the Web sites of OSHA (www.osha.gov) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (www.cdc.gov/niosh/).
Todd Logsdon and Chantell Foley are attorneys in Fisher Phillips’ Louisville, Kentucky office. Their practice is exclusively devoted to representing employers in matters of labor and employment law. Todd and Chantell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively. This article merely provides an overview of certain legal issues and cannot be construed as legal advice.