As it gets hotter outside, employers should consider how best to protect their employees from work-related heat illness. Thousands of workers fall victim to heat illness each year, and, tragically, many die from heat exposure at work.
Over the past several years, OSHA has significantly increased its focus on protecting employees from succumbing to heat illness. Most recently, the agency has released a heat safety tool, available in both English and Spanish, which can be downloaded on an iPhone or Android device. Employers can and should take advantage of this free app, which calculates the heat index for the worksite and displays a risk level to outdoor workers. The app also provides a list of the measures that should be taken at that risk level to protect workers from developing heat illness.
Although all employers should be vigilant about protecting their employees from heat illness, employers whose employees spend most of the summer working outdoors (such as those in the construction, trade, transportation and utilities, agriculture, building and grounds maintenance, landscaping services, and support activities for oil and gas operations industries) should be particularly cautious. Employers should have a heat illness prevention plan in place and ensure that their employees fully understand the dangers of heat illness and how to avoid it.
Although federal OSHA does not have a heat illness standard, the agency relies upon the general duty clause to issue citations for incidents involving heat illness. Employers with worksites in California should be aware that Cal/OSHA does have comprehensive heat illness regulations in place, which have recently been enhanced, requiring employers to take many of the actions listed below–and then some–including maintaining a set of written procedures for complying with the state’s heat illness prevention standard. Stricter regulations went into effect on May 1, 2015.
By taking just a few extra precautions, employers can significantly reduce the possibility of workers being affected by heat illness and demonstrate their commitment to worker safety. Simple steps that every employer can take include:
- implementing a period of acclimation into employees’ work schedules–gradually increasing the amount of time that they spend working in the heat, as well as the level of exertion;
- making water readily available and encouraging employees to drink water at least every 15 minutes, even if they do not feel thirsty;
- training employees on the signs of heat illness and how to respond to a heat illness emergency;
- encouraging employees to wear a hat and light-colored clothing; and
- encouraging employees to rest in the shade and cool down, as needed, and ensuring that they understand that they will not be reprimanded for taking such action.
Valerie Butera is a Member of the Firm in the Labor and Employment practice, in the Washington, DC, office of Epstein Becker & Green, P.C., where she focuses on OSHA and other workplace safety and health issues. She represents clients from numerous industries, including health care and life sciences, financial services, hospitality, retail, and technology, among others. She is OSHA 30 certified and has substantial training and experience in process safety management (PSM).
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