- The rising global temperatures due to climate change have led to an increase in work-related heat illnesses, making OSHA’s temperature regulations more relevant than ever.
- OSHA’s National Emphasis Program (NEP) introduced in 2022 is a focused effort to mitigate heat-related hazards leading to workplace illnesses, injuries, and deaths.
- OSHA can conduct inspections when the heat index reaches 80 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, making heat management crucial for many businesses.
- Over 70 industries, including general industry, construction, maritime, and agriculture, are considered at-risk for heat illnesses and are targeted by OSHA.
- Employers need to be proactive and establish heat illness prevention measures like a heat illness program, worker training schedules, adequate access to water, shade, and personal protective equipment, and policies for monitoring worker health during high heat index days.
- Though not yet a federal requirement, adhering to the NEP guidelines can help businesses avoid potential fines, reputational damage, and, most importantly, safeguard employee health.
The Rising Challenge of Heat Illness
Climate change has brought the issue of workplace heat illnesses to the forefront with the last 19 summers ranking as the hottest on record. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that environmental heat cases caused an average of 35 fatalities and 2,700 cases requiring days away from work annually between 2015 and 2019. However, these numbers may not capture the full extent of heat-related fatalities due to misdiagnosis or underreporting. To combat this issue, OSHA announced a new National Emphasis Program (NEP) on April 12, 2022.
OSHA’s National Emphasis Program (NEP) on Heat Illness
The NEP is an important initiative from OSHA aimed at reducing exposure to heat-related hazards in both indoor and outdoor work environments. The program enables OSHA to conduct pre-planned inspections on “heat priority days” – days when the heat index, also known as the “feel-like” temperature, is expected to hit 80 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
OSHA can also inspect workplaces based on several scenarios:
- A reportable injury at the facility, such as an inpatient hospitalization due to a heart attack, when the heat index was above 80 on the day of the incident.
- Employee complaints about unsafe work conditions related to heat.
- Pre-planned inspection for combined NEPs subject to the industry, like forklift operations, noise control, and heat exposure.
Identifying At-Risk Industries
More than 70 industries fall under OSHA’s radar for being high-risk for heat illness. These industries span general industry, construction, maritime, and agriculture sectors. OSHA bases this on various factors including heat-related illness incidence rates, the number of employee days off caused by such incidents, and the number of heat-related violations.
However, OSHA also carries out inspections in other industries, particularly when there are high incidence rates or employee complaints about heat hazards.
What OSHA Looks for During an Inspection
The NEP outlines specific procedures and documents that a Certified Safety and Health Officer (CSHO) will inspect for heat illness-related compliance. As an employer, it’s crucial to prepare for these scenarios to ensure compliance:
- Documentation: OSHA will require the employer’s 300 Logs and 301 Incident reports (if applicable to the industry).
- Worker Interviews: The CSHO will interview employees about symptoms indicative of heat-related illnesses, such as headaches, dizziness, fainting, and dehydration. This will involve both new employees and those who have recently returned to work.
- Heat Illness and Injury Program Review: CSHOs will assess the employer’s heat illness and injury program that addresses heat exposure.
- Inspection of Activities Related to Heat-Related Hazards: This includes identifying potential sources of heat-related illnesses, reviewing the use of heavy or bulky clothing or equipment, and estimating workload exertions by observing the types of tasks performed by employees.
Prevention: Mitigating Heat Illness Before It Happens
The best defense against heat illness is prevention. Employers can leverage resources like OSHA’s heat safety app, which measures heat index, provides heat illness risk levels, and offers protective measures. Employers should also familiarize themselves with the National Weather Service Heat Index.
Heat illness prevention requires a multi-pronged approach:
- Creating a Heat Illness Prevention Team: This team will monitor the heat index, jobsite conditions, implement controls, and provide necessary equipment to workers.
- Training and Education: Workers should be trained about the risk factors for and physical signs of heat illness, how to report signs and symptoms, administer first aid, contact emergency personnel, and the importance of hydration and prevention.
- Workplace Adjustments: Consider implementing additional breaks, providing shade and water, ensuring proper personal protective equipment like evaporative cooling vests and large fans, and adjusting work schedules or rotation to limit heat exposure.
Looking Ahead: The Implication of a Federal Standard
While the NEP isn’t a legal requirement, it indicates the areas OSHA will be paying close attention to in the coming years. A federal standard for heat illness prevention is likely on the horizon, which makes the implementation of these heat illness mitigation procedures and training crucial for businesses to stay ahead of the curve.
In addition, employers need to be aware of and comply with all local, state, and federal laws regarding heat-related illness. Some states have their own regulations that exceed OSHA requirements.
Adhering to OSHA’s temperature regulations is more than just a compliance issue. It’s about ensuring a safe and healthy work environment for employees, mitigating risks, and enhancing productivity. By understanding and implementing these guidelines, businesses can build a more resilient and secure workplace in the face of climate change and rising temperatures.