In mid-July, a coalition of groups led by Public Citizen, a consumer and health advocacy group, petitioned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to adopt a standard for protecting workers from extreme heat.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health issued revised recommendations in 2016 for how employers can address the risk of heat stress on the job, but there’s no official federal standard for employers to follow. California, Minnesota and Washington have state regulations to protect their workers, but the petition estimates approximately 260,000 workers in the rest of the U.S. are exposed to greater risk of heat-related illnesses or death.
“Given the clear evidence on the risks of heat stress for both outdoor and indoor workers and the demonstrated feasibility of a regulation protecting workers from these dangers, citing evidence from a state such as California and the military, there is no valid, evidence-based reason for OSHA not to immediately initiate the rulemaking process for a federal heat stress standard,” the petitioners wrote.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reports that in 2016, over 700 people statewide were sent to the emergency room for heat-related illnesses. Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2010 show that nearly 4,200 people missed work and 40 people died due to injuries or illnesses caused by heat exposure.
“Workers are laboring in extreme heat, often with no protections from heat stress, in a wide range of indoor and outdoor workplaces, including farms, construction sites, steel mills, warehouses, manufacturing and meat-packing plants, and vehicles,” according to the petitioners, which include over 220 organizations and individuals, largely representing farm workers and health care professionals. The Colorado School of Public Health is among the co-petitioners.
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The proposed standard outlined in the petition is based on NIOSH’s “Criteria for a Recommended Standard: Occupational Exposure to Heat and Hot Environments.” The standard proposed in the petition calls on employers to provide:
- Mandatory rest breaks, shade and personal protective equipment, such as water- or air-cooled garments, at specified heat-stress thresholds
- Enough water to maintain appropriate hydration, plus electrolytes if workers are sweating for more than two hours
Additionally, the standard proposed by the petitioners includes requirements for employers to:
- Draft and follow a plan to acclimatize workers to high-heat conditions over a seven- to 14-day period. The plan should account for situations out of their control like heat waves.
- Monitor environmental heat levels and employee workloads
- Monitor heat stress to workers exposed to temperatures above the recommended levels.
- Post signs identifying heat hazards
- Educate workers on how to prevent heat stress
- Maintain records of heat-related injuries and deaths
- Establish whistleblower protections for workers who report employers who don’t follow the heat-stress standard