As summer temperatures soar to scorching heights, the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration is here with recommendations and
tips to stay safe on the job, even a smartphone app, but no federal standard as
to what “safe” actually means.
“OSHA currently has no appetite to work on a heat standard,” said Safety Department Director Dave Mullen. “But if they do move, we’ll be there.”
When Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, it also established the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which was charged with recommending health and safety standards. Among those was a standard for heat exposure, but it has yet to become an actual, enforceable rule.
As it currently stands, OSHA inspectors have to rely on a general requirement to provide a safe workplace when determining whether to cite an employer for heat violations. According to the OSHA website, “under the OSH Act, employers have a duty to protect workers from recognized serious hazards in the workplace, including heat-related hazards.” Considering the low number of inspectors however, it’s not clear how often employers are truly being held accountable, or how often any violations are being reported.
Mullen noted that, from 1992-2016, over 69,000 workers have been seriously injured from heat-related injuries or illnesses. In that time, 783 workers died due to heat. He also pointed to the increasing number of record-breaking years for high temperatures. According to NASA, 2018 was the fourth hottest year in nearly 140 years of record-keeping, and the five warmest years have been the last five.
“Our brothers and sisters need to know that heat is the No. 1 weather-related killer in the United States,” said Ivan De Herrera, Los Angeles Local 11 assistant business manager. “As our local’s safety director, I remind our members to always look out for one another.”
Last year during Workers’ Memorial Week in April, a number of groups — including many from labor – petitioned the current OSHA head, Acting Assistant Secretary Loren Sweatt, to begin the rulemaking process to create what would be the first federal standard to protect both outdoor and indoor workers from excessive heat.
The petition, which also has support from former OSHA directors, included recommendations and research from NIOSH, among them mandatory rest breaks, hydration and access to cool spaces. It also noted that three states – California, Minnesota and Washington – have developed their own standards.
California’s standard applies to outdoor workers in industries including construction, agriculture, landscaping and oil and gas extraction. It specifies protocols like provision of shade when temperatures exceed 80 degrees Fahrenheit and implementation of high-heat procedures when temperatures exceed 95 degrees Fahrenheit. It also states that employees are to be provided fresh, cool water free of charge and that it be located as close as possible to work areas.
De Herrera visited a solar project in May, located in a high desert area where temperatures can easily climb to 100 degrees. The project is run by Cupertino Electric and employs around 300 members. The signatory contractor has implemented a number of measures to ensure its employees are safe, said De Herrera, including a personal risk assessment booklet that all workers are required to fill out and have signed by their foreman daily.
There are also vans with air conditioning, special chairs with cool water in the arms that anyone can use to cool off and hydration charts in the restrooms so workers can monitor their urine to see how hydrated they are. Cupertino also has safety officers on site to check the workers for signs of dehydration or other heat-related illness.
“Cupertino definitely has a great heat illness protection program,” De Herrera said. “I’m really proud of the steps our contractors have made to assure heat illness prevention is a big part of their safety program.”
Mullen says it’s important for all IBEW members to know their rights under OSHA and that they have a right to a safe workplace. For its part, OSHA has its ongoing Heat Illness Prevention campaign emphasizing water, rest and shade. The website states:
Under OSHA law, employers are responsible for providing workplaces free of known safety hazards. This includes protecting workers from extreme heat. An employer with workers exposed to high temperatures should establish a complete heat illness prevention program.
- Provide workers with water, rest and shade.
- Allow new or returning workers to gradually increase workloads and take more frequent breaks as they acclimatize, or build a tolerance for working in the heat.
- Plan for emergencies and train workers on prevention.
- Monitor workers for signs of illness.
Along with NIOSH, OSHA developed an app, available for iPhones and Androids, that calculates the heat index in your location and gives you a corresponding risk level. The app also provides information on symptoms of heat-related illness and first aid.
Heat-related illnesses include heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, heat rash and severe dehydration — all of which are preventable.
For new workers, acclimatization is particularly important. Research shows that it can take one to two weeks to adjust to the heat, and a 2016 study found that, of 23 heat-related deaths, 17 died within the first three days on the job.
“The IBEW is proud to work with contractors like Cupertino who are setting a great example, but we owe it to our brothers and sisters in all 50 states to have a federal standard that protects everyone exposed to extreme heat,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson.
For more information on OSHA’s guidelines and for tips on how to stay safe, visit www.osha.gov/heat.