Under pressure to respond to the risks to employees created by the nationwide heat wave this summer, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently instructed its field enforcement staff, “to expedite heat-related inspections and to issue citations, where appropriate, as soon as possible.” Heat-related inspections are to occur on days when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) issues a heat advisory forecasting a heat index at or above the “danger zone” for a particular area. OSHA investigators have been instructed to determine whether employers are, at the very least, providing employees with adequate access to water, rest periods, and shade. These directions are contained in a Memorandum issued on July 19, 2012 by OSHA’s Director of Enforcement and signed by the agency’s second-in-command, Deputy Assistant Secretary Richard Fairfax.

Although OSHA does not have any specific safety standard addressing heat stress, employers may be cited under the so-called OSHA “General Duty Clause,” which requires employers to furnish working conditions that are “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” Although OSHA’s Memorandum is not technically binding on state OSHA plans, it is expected that state plans, including those in the desert southwest such as Nevada, will respond with stepped-up inspections and citations. California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health already has issued its own specific standards regulating outdoor places of employment. 

Apart from liability concerns, employers should be taking steps to protect employees from the potentially serious effects of heat stress. This is especially so in industries in which outdoor work is common, such as construction, agriculture, and landscaping. Among recognized recommendations are that employers should provide employees with adequate supplies of drinking water, more frequent rest periods, and access to shaded or air-conditioned areas in which to rest. Also, employers should train employees and supervisors on recognizing the symptoms of heat-related illnesses and consider other operational standards such as employee monitoring, heat acclamation periods, and scheduling outdoor work during cooler parts of the day.

Under a highly publicized outreach campaign, OSHA has posted on its website information that employers may utilize in training employees and reducing the threat of heat-related illness. Also, many trade associations and safety organizations have published heat stress prevention information on their websites. For example, a National Safety Council advisory on this issue can be found here.