Hazardous Heat

OSHA has initiated a rulemaking process — and a national enforcement initiative — to address the growing challenge of hazardous heat.

A real-time concern

Exposure to excessive environmental heat stress has killed at least 384 workers in the past decade, according to a report by National Public Radio (NPR) and Columbia Journalism Investigations, an investigative reporting group based at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. The report, issued in August, found that the three-year average of worker heat deaths — based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data  — has doubled since the early 1990s. And that’s a conservative estimate. Among the report’s other findings is the significant underreporting of heat-related illnesses, as well as OSHA’s poor recordkeeping and follow-up. At this point, we have no way of knowing exactly how many heat-related illnesses and deaths have occurred.

With OSHA’s recent rulemaking announcement and new national enforcement initiative, there will be more clarity about this issue on the near horizon. The rulemaking process generally takes several years to complete, including public comment periods, implementation studies, and other regulatory procedures (i.e., Congressional input).

The proposed rule

Safety and compliance professionals, and employers where hazardous heat is a concern, should familiarize themselves with the proposed rule and respond, if possible, during the comment period ending January 26, 2022.

OSHA is seeking wide-ranging input about heat acclimatization planning, heat-stress thresholds, and exposure monitoring. The agency is also establishing a Heat Injury and Illness Prevention Work Group to guide the rulemaking process.

You may submit comments and attachments — identified by Docket No. OSHA-2021-0009 — electronically at www.regulations.gov, which is the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal. Follow the instructions online for making electronic submissions.

The enforcement initiative

On September 20, OSHA announced “enhanced, expanded measures to protect workers from hazards of extreme heat, indoors and out” and directed OSHA regional offices to implement the following policies: 

  • Prioritize inspections of heat-related complaints, referrals, and employer-reported illnesses and initiate an onsite investigation where possible.
  • Instruct compliance safety and health officers, during their travels to job sites, to conduct an intervention (providing the agency’s heat poster/wallet card, discuss the importance of easy access to cool water, cooling areas, and acclimatization) or opening an inspection when they observe employees performing strenuous work in hot conditions.
  • Expand the scope of other inspections to address heat-related hazards where worksite conditions or other evidence indicates these hazards may be present.

The agency also stated its intention to have a National Emphasis Program (NEP) on heat-related illnesses ready to go before the summer of 2022. It is expected that the planned NEP will be modeled on OSHA’s existing Regional Emphasis Program in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas (Region 6).

Employers take note

Employers with outdoor sites in construction, farm labor, fire-fighting operations, landscaping and tree care, surface mining, and indoor environments like bakeries, boiler rooms, warehouses, and factories are anticipated targets of heightened targeted investigation and enforcement.

If you have any questions or concerns about your safety program and heat-related illness, your readiness for a targeted inspection — or if you have received an OSHA citation for any reason — please don’t hesitate to reach out to us for assistance.

About the Author: James Laboe

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