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November 2021

Spotlight on Safety
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Biden Administration Announces Plans for
National Workplace Heat Standard

By the time next summer rolls around there could be new measures in place to keep workers safe from heat illness.

"Communities that over 100 million people — one in three Americans — call home have been struck by extreme weather events in the last few months alone. This is a blinking code red for our nation. And while we have all seen the graphic and heart-wrenching images of super-storms, wildfires, and floods … another climate disaster is lurking just below the radar: extreme heat. My administration will not leave Americans to face this threat alone," President Joe Biden said in a statement announcing his administration's new efforts.

As extreme heat grows in frequency and intensity, more and more workers, including many IBEW members, are at risk of heat-related illness and death. In fact, according to the National Weather Service, extreme heat is now the leading weather-related killer in United States. And while some employers and a handful of states have implemented common-sense policies like providing shade, water and breaks, that's not the case for everyone, highlighting the need for a national standard.

Toward that end, the Biden administration announced in September a multi-agency effort to combat illness and death from extreme heat, including multiple initiatives through the Department of Labor. Among those are the early steps toward a first-ever workplace heat standard through the department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"Throughout the nation, millions of workers face serious hazards from high temperatures both outdoors and indoors. Amid changing climate, the growing frequency and intensity of extreme heat events is increasing the dangers workers face, especially for workers of color who disproportionately work in essential jobs in tough conditions," said Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. "As secretary of labor, my priority is to make sure we are taking appropriate action to keep workers healthy and safe on the job."

In addition to starting the rulemaking process for a heat standard, OSHA is also implementing an enforcement initiative on heat-related hazards, developing a National Emphasis Program on heat inspections, and forming a Heat Injury and Illness Prevention Work Group to provide a better understanding of the challenges involved and to share best practices.

The new initiative will prioritize heat-related interventions and inspections of work activities on days when the heat index exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit and applies to indoor and outdoor worksites in general industry, construction, agriculture and maritime where potential heat-related hazards exist. On those days, OSHA area directors will dedicate additional resources to respond to complaints and expand the scope of programmed and unprogrammed inspections to address heat-related hazards. Additionally, OSHA will expand its campaign to educate and assist employers on prevention methods.

"While agricultural and construction workers often come to mind first when thinking about workers most exposed to heat hazards, without proper safety actions, sun protection and climate-control, intense heat can be harmful to a wide variety of workers indoors or outdoors and during any season," said Acting Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Jim Frederick.

The NEP will target high-risk industries and focus OSHA resources and staff time on heat inspections. According to a White House fact sheet, OSHA is currently working to complete its data review in order for the program to take effect before the summer 2022 heat season.

In October, OSHA kickstarted the rulemaking process by issuing an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on heat injury and illness prevention in both outdoor and indoor work settings. The advance notice initiates a comment period that allows OSHA to gather perspectives and technical expertise on topics including heat stress thresholds, acclimatization planning, exposure monitoring and strategies to protect workers.

While this marks the first time such a process has been started for getting a heat safety rule, it's not the first time an administration has been asked to work on one. The issue was on the regulatory agenda during the Obama administration but was subsequently removed by Trump.

"We have attempted in the past to get OSHA to do a heat standard but had no luck. The previous administration made a decision not to work on a standard even when presented with a petition asking them to do so," said Safety Department Director Dave Mullen. "For IBEW members it means we finally have an administration that recognizes the hazards of heat and heat-related illnesses, not only on the job site but throughout the country. Recognition of this hazard will mean our members who work in hot environments inside and outside will now have a standard to protect them. This is a big deal."

OSHA noted that even with widespread under-reporting, 43 workers died from heat illness in 2019 and at least 2,410 others suffered serious injuries and illnesses. Excessive heat conditions can also cause lost productivity and work hours resulting in large wage losses for workers. The Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center estimates the economic loss from heat to be at least $100 billion annually — a number that could double by 2030 and quintuple by 2050 under a higher emissions scenario.


The Biden administration is taking action to protect workers from heat-related illness and death, including starting the process for a first-ever national standard and increased enforcement.