When work heats up, OSHA may pay a visit

By Jeff Jones
Special to the UCBJ

While mandatory COVID vaccinations has been at the forefront of attention lately, OSHA has not ignored other employee safety priorities. 

On Sept. 1, OSHA issued a memorandum establishing inspection guidance for heat-related hazards, which is part of the Biden administration’s effort to “combat the hazards associated with extreme heat exposure,” as reflected from the “Statement by President Biden on Mobilizing the Administration to Address Extreme Heat” which was issued on Sept. 20, 2021. OSHA is also in the process of developing a National Emphasis Program on heat hazard cases and has formed the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health Heat Injury and Illness Prevention Workgroup.  These measures are all part of the agency’s effort to protect workers from heat-related illnesses and injuries. 

The inspection guidance is effective as of Sept. 1, 2021 (the date of issuance) and emphasizes implementation of proactive interventions, such as providing employees with adequate water, rest, shade, and other measures to prevent heat-related issues. In the guidance, OSHA establishes an enforcement initiative aimed to preventing and protecting employees from serious heat-related illnesses and deaths while working in hazardous hot indoor or outdoor environments.  It expands OSHA’s heat-related illness prevention efforts by setting forth the process for inspections, enforcement (i.e., issuing citations) and outreach efforts. The initiative prioritizes heat-related interventions and inspections of work activities on days when the heat index exceeds 80℉.

Heat-related illnesses generally occur when physical work is performed in conditions of high ambient heat, especially where conditions of heat and humidity contribute to the heat index and where there is inadequate cooling in the facility. The inspection guidance notes that “employers have a duty to prevent heat-related illnesses and deaths in both indoor and outdoor workplaces.” The guidance further notes that typical worksites impacted by heat-related illnesses will include foundries, brick-firing and ceramic plants, glass production facilities, warehouses without adequate climate control, chemical plants, as well as outdoor work activities such as agricultural, landscaping, waste collection activities, package and mail delivery, and other activities requiring high physical exertions or heavy clothing. 

The guidance further notes that on “heat priority days” (defined as those days with a heat index that exceeds 80°F), there is a need to increase OSHA enforcement efforts so as to identify potential heat-related hazards present in working conditions before the occurrence of an illness or death.  During any heat-related inspections, OSH Compliance Officers (i.e., inspectors) are advised to focus on investigation measures to address these issues such as:

  • Review of the OSHA 300 logs as well as records of employee emergency room visits indicating heat-related illnesses; 
  • Interview workers for any reports of headaches, dizziness, fainting, dehydration, or other symptoms that may indicate heat-related illnesses; and 
  • Review the employer’s plan to address heat exposure as well as any training records reflecting a heat-illness prevention program. 

The guidance also indicates the OSHA Inspector should note potential sources of heat-related illnesses such as working in direct sunlight, hot vehicles, or working in areas with hot air, near a gas engine, or the use of heavy or bulky clothing.

Finally, the guidance memorandum notes that any proposed citation for heat-related hazards where the employer’s procedures have failed to protect workers adequately, can be issued under the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a) (1) of the OSH Act.  

This guidance and the heat-related initiative applies “to indoor and outdoor worksites where potential heat-related hazards exist.” The guidance further notes that “working conditions that have resulted in serious heat-related illnesses occur in all major industry sectors of employers, including general industry, construction, agriculture, and maritime.” 

According to OSHA’s News Release, OSHA Area Directors across the nation will (1) prioritize inspections of heat-related complaints, referrals and employer-reported illnesses and initiate an onsite investigation where possible; (2) instruct compliance safety and health officers, during their travels to job sites, to conduct an intervention (providing the agency’s heat poster/wallet card, discuss the importance of easy access to cool water, cooling areas and acclimatization) or opening an inspection when they observe employees performing strenuous work in hot conditions; and (3) expand the scope of other inspections to address heat-related hazards where worksite conditions or other evidence indicates these hazards may be present. 

In the coming months, OSHA is also expected to issue an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on heat injury and illness prevention in outdoor and indoor work settings. The advance notice will initiate a comment period allowing OSHA to gather diverse perspectives and technical expertise on topics including heat stress thresholds, heat acclimatization planning, exposure monitoring, and strategies to protect workers.

Employers who have employees working in areas of high heat exposure (whether indoors or outdoors) should take steps promptly towards mitigating the presence and potential impact of any heat-related hazards, as well as adopting a written Heat Illness Prevention Plan and related employee training.  

Jeffrey G. Jones is a regional managing member for Wimberly Lawson Wright Daves & Jones PLLC. He can be reached at jjones@wimberlylawson.com.

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