Will OSHA Bring The Heat This Summer?

This past Memorial Day weekend, the southeastern region of the United States experienced a historic heatwave that set all-time records. It’s only going to get hotter, and temperatures throughout the summer can create hazards for workers working both outside and inside. For the past few months, many in the workplace safety field have been expecting the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to announce a new Heat Related Illness Standard.

Currently, OSHA does not have a specific standard for heat exposures. But just because federal OSHA does not have a specific standard in place doesn’t mean it hasn’t spoken on the subject. The agency has issued various Standard Interpretation letters discussing heat stress in workplaces. In a May 2010 Standard Interpretation letter, OSHA provided methods of abating heat stress hazards in workplaces, including permitting workers to drink water or cold liquids, such as sports drinks, at liberty, establishing a work/rest regimen so that exposure time to high temperatures and the work rate is decreased, and developing an overall heat stress program. In August 2014, OSHA again addressed heat-related hazards by announcing that it was once again sponsoring its campaign to “Prevent Heat Illness in Outdoor Workers.” The agency noted that “thousands of workers experience serious heat-related illnesses every year and dozens are killed,” and that it wanted “to make sure that employers and workers know the steps they can take to prevent heat-related illness and death.”

The General Duty Clause(GDC), section 5(a) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, has been used for heat related illnesses. The GDC states employers have a duty to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards that are likely to cause serious physical harm or death. Previous citations for heat related illness under the GDC have been met with significant legal challenges.

To that end, last fall OSHA issued an advanced notice of a proposed rulemaking. The agency indicated, for the first time, a consideration for creating a federal standard to prevent heat related illness. Several state level OSHA plans adopted emergency rules last summer due to chronic heat wave. Washington, Oregon, and California adopted their own programs to address heat exposure in the workplace. Each state implemented a program that triggered additional protection for workers, but the threshold for those protections varied greatly.

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CAL/OSHA Program
The Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, Douglas Parker, most recently served as the Chief of California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA). So while, at this point, it may be impossible to predict what OSHA will publish in the proposed rule, we can certainly look at the Cal/OSHA program to get an idea of what may be coming in the new rule package. The Cal/OSHA program triggers worker protections at a temperature of 80°F. California’s Heat Illness Prevention Standard requires employers to provide training, water, shade, and planning. In addition, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), has published criteria for managing heat related stress that may also be included in a new OSHA standard. The NIOSH guidelines include:

  • Mandatory Rest Breaks: Mandatory rest breaks away from the hot environment in duration from 15 to 45 minutes per hour at certain heat thresholds.
  • Personal Protective Equipment: When heat exposure levels reach the recommended exposure limit or recommended alert limit, employers must provide PPE to protect workers from heat-related illness. Such PPE may include cooling vests and light-colored, breathable fabric.
  • Shade: Employers must provide access to sufficient areas of shade during the rest breaks.
  • Hydration: Access to water in quantities sufficient to maintain adequate levels of hydration at varying levels of heat, as well as electrolytes if workers are sweating for more than two hours.
  • Heat Acclimatization Plan: Workers beginning work in high-heat environments, or who will be working in hotter conditions than usual, must be gradually acclimatized to the work over a period of at least 7-14 days.

If Federal OSHA adopts a similar protection threshold, almost every marina in the United States would be impacted. Some may only be impacted for a short period in summer while other may be impacted most of the business year. Despite the lack of a specific standard addressing heat safety, marina owners and operators should follow the NIOSH guidelines when temperatures rise, and employees are exposed to extreme heat. In addition, it would be a great time to formalize a policy for the prevention of Heat Related Illness.