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Soon It Will Be Summer: The Forecast Calls for a New OSHA Heat Standard

By Robert Lahey, Contributor

Springtime will soon give way to a sweltering summer in most of the country. A dramatic reminder of the consequences of heat stress are the hundreds of lives lost throughout the Pacific Northwest last year as a result of a two-week period of record-breaking high temperatures.

As the Earth’s climate continues to warm, heat waves are becoming more frequent and more severe. Employers and employees―in both outdoor and indoor environments ― should be concerned.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) cites heat as the leading cause of weather-related deaths since 1990 – five times deadlier than cold weather, three times deadlier than hurricanes, and twice as deadly as tornadoes.

Image courtesy of www.weather.gov/hazstat.

This phenomenon is not likely to change anytime soon. However, heat-related illnesses and fatalities in the workplace are preventable. It requires an effective health and safety plan to:

  • Identify on-the-job hazards
  • Correct or reduce risks
  • Train workers about protections
  • Prepare for first aid
  • Plans for emergency response

The need for these preventive measures is shared by government officials, as well. In October 2021, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Heat Injury and Illness Prevention in Outdoor and Indoor Work Settings.

Currently, a heat-specific standard does not exist to protect millions of workers from exposure to hazardous conditions. A public comment period that concluded in January 2022 was intended to obtain information about “the extent and nature of hazardous heat in the workplace.” The timeline for next steps has not yet been announced.

In the meantime, however, OSHA has instituted a heat-related enforcement initiative and plans to issue a National Emphasis Program (NEP) for heat-related safety efforts later this year.

All of these actions represent a national commitment to the development of a permanent federal rule and the implementation of other means to increase awareness about the dangers of heat.

Employers do not need to wait for direction from Washington, D.C. in order to take actions that are in the best interest of employees. The risks are real, as evidenced by the nearly 400 workplace fatalities and additional 35,000 injuries and illnesses attributed to workplace heat stress during the past decade. Furthermore, the time is right, with summer months now on the horizon.

Excessive temperatures can cause heat stroke, and even death, if an employee is not treated properly. Such conditions also make worse existing health problems, such as asthma, kidney failure, and heart disease. Construction workers are at higher risk, but the problem affects all who are exposed to extreme heat – including persons working indoors in a non-climate-controlled environment.

The most common strategies for protecting workers include:

  • Providing sufficient water, rest, and shade.
  • Allowing new or returning employees to gradually increase their workloads and take more frequent breaks in order to build tolerance for the heat.
  • Monitor all workers for any signs of illness.
  • Train on prevention, but plan for emergencies.

Indeed, ‘tis the season for adopting a proactive approach to this known health hazard. CS

Robert Lahey is the President & CEO of Chicagoland Construction Safety Council (www.buildsafe.org).

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