The year 2018 has brought extreme heat to many locations throughout the country. In fact, 2018 is on pace to be one of the hottest years in recorded history according to statistical data from the federal government.
As a result, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has emphasized to employers the importance of preventing workplace heat illness indoors as well as outdoors.
Currently, OSHA does not have specific standards for occupational heat exposure. However, under Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, also known as the “general duty clause,” employers are required to provide employees with a workplace that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” 29 U.S.C. § 654. OSHA will not hesitate to issue employers citations or hazard alert letters that assert a violation or potential violation of the general duty clause based on unsafe workplace temperatures. In addition, three states — Minnesota, California and Washington — have state OSHA plans that include heat standards for which employers in those states can be cited.
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Employers with indoor facilities should therefore take necessary steps to prevent heat-related illnesses. Appropriate measures to reduce heat exposure and the risk of heat-related illness include: (a) engineering controls, such as air-conditioning and ventilation that make the work environment cooler; and (b) work practices that allow employees to take work/rest cycles and stay hydrated throughout the day. These measures should be included in employee worksite training and plans. In addition, employers should train managers and supervisors to know and look out for the symptoms of heat-related illness, particularly during hot weather patterns.
Of course, such prevention is also critical for employees working outdoors. For outdoor work, employers should: (a) develop a heat-related illness prevention plan; (b) train workers to drink water and recognize heat-related symptoms before it gets hot; (c) track the weather for the work site daily and assess the risk for employees; and (d) implement the prevention plan when the heat indexes are at or above 80° Fahrenheit.
While heat illness prevention plans are especially important in the summer, the evolving unpredictability of heat patterns and unseasonably high temperatures in certain regions of the country throughout the year require that employers implement prevention plans year-round along with appropriate training for indoor and outdoor facilities.