It’s hot! With Mother Nature bringing consecutive days of temperatures over 90 and even 100 degrees, employees are complaining and companies are asking about the rights of their employees. One employee complained his company did not allow him to drink from the cold water fountain in the office area, but did allow him to drink from water bottles he had to purchase and bring from home. What are his rights? And, what are the company’s responsibilities?

First, non-union employees have the right to act as a group (i.e., defined by the Government as more than one) and complain about the heat to their supervisors and management. Non-union employees also have the right to withhold their services – to strike. A company may not terminate or discipline them for complaining or for striking. Nor may a supervisor threaten employees with disciplinary action if they complain or take action as a group. Thus, when the president of a foreign-owned subsidiary terminated four company employees for refusing to work, the company violated Section 8(a)(1) and/or (3) of the National Labor Relations Act.

Second, Section 502 of the Labor Management Relations Act protects individual employees from “abnormally dangerous conditions.” This federal law states that a company may not require individual employees – union and non-union – to work without his/her consent if there is an abnormally dangerous condition. Also, under this section, an employee or group of employees who refuse to work because of an abnormally dangerous condition is not considered to be on strike. Thus, if a union contract prohibits strikes and therefore allows a company to terminate an employee who strikes, this law protects union members from striking in response to an abnormally dangerous working condition. Whether heat is one of those conditions depends, of course, on the facts and the circumstances.

Third, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) has issued written standards and official letters of interpretation regarding “heat stress.” For example, OSHA’s Technical Manual contains sections on the signs of heat stress and how companies should investigate whether heat stress is occurring in the workplace. In addition, on October 17, 2001, OSHA issued a letter opinion setting forth some methods to reduce heat stress, including the creation and implementation of a heat stress program, a training program to identify heat stress, procedures to counter heat stress and permitting workers to drink water when necessary.  

Many companies use the high temperatures as a way to improve employee relations. One client in southern Indiana contacted the local ice cream company to send one of its trucks to visit the factory on Friday afternoons. Another client offered bottled water for free to its employees. A third scheduled additional breaks periods. As with almost all decisions, management should consider the legal rights and responsibilities, the implications of its actions and continue to act in a way to maintain and improve the productivity of its employees and business operations.