In 2014, 2,630 workers suffered from heat illness and 18 died from heat stroke on the job.
According to OSHA, the majority of recent heat-related deaths investigated involved workers on the job for three days or less—highlighting the need for employers to ensure that new workers become acclimated to the heat when starting or returning to work. And if you've been working indoors or in a cool climate since last summer season, your body probably thinks you are a 'new worker.'
Heat illness can be deadly. NIOSH says "occupational exposure to heat can result in injuries, disease, death, and reduced productivity."
But, did you know that with the exception of provisions in the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) standard, federal OSHA does not have regulations that specifically address heat stress?
None the less, OSHA can and will cite employers for heat stress using the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which requires employers to provide a workplace that is "free from recognizable hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious harm to employees." OSHA will cite the standard for both indoor and outdoor heat hazards. A few states have put in place their own heat prevention standards.
So when someone from OSHA asks, "Hot enough for you?", what are they checking for?
Heat stress and injury are direct results from the combination of natural environmental factors such as temperature - actual and indexed, humidity, and sun exposure, with the level of physical effort and dehydration a worker experiences. And yes, it is subjective. Everyone processes heat personally.
The two primary heat illnesses are heat stroke and heat exhaustion. OSHA uses threshold limit values from the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists and other expert opinions to determine exposure limits for heat stress. What OSHA looks for is:
- Access to cool drinking water. Water dispensers must be closed (no buckets) with a tap, the water should be between 50-60 degrees, and be palatable.
- Activity. Employers must 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.
- Compliance with first aid standards. Have someone trained to recognize the signs of heat stress on site. First aid supplies such as cold packs, ice, fluids, and towels should be readily available. OSHA interprets "readily available" to mean a response time of 3-4 minutes. Employers must have a way to transport an injured employee to a doctor or hospital if needed.
- Safety training. OSHA requires construction employers to train workers to recognize and avoid heat hazards. Workers and supervisors should monitor each other for signs of heat stress. Employers with workers exposed to high temperatures should establish a complete heat illness prevention program that has prevention tips, picture examples of heat stress, and emergency medical contact information. Calling 911 is imperative but having a Plan B is vital.
OSHA offers a media toolkit with links to the free OSHA heat app to keep track of the heat index, as well as videos and worksite posters for training and updating. Some of these resources are also in Spanish.
Keep in mind too that the new record keeping and reporting standard requires work-related injuries and illnesses that result in medical treatment (such as intravenous fluids) or the loss of consciousness to be recorded on the employer’s 300 Log. This includes heat-related illnesses.