The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited an Anson, Maine employer in the heat-related death of a worker at a site in Inman, Nebraska. The agency proposed penalties in the amount of $18,564.
OSHA cited Smith Mountain Investments, LLC, with two serious violations. The agency alleged a violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s general duty clause in the worker’s death.
A worker collapsed after working 12½ hours and was pronounced dead of hyperthermia with a body temperature of 106.3 degrees Fahrenheit. Smith Mountain Investments, which inspects and maintains utility poles, assigned two employees July 1, to manually shovel the circumference of 48 telephone poles, exposing the wooden poles approximately 18 inches below ground level.
“Death from heat related illness is a preventable tragedy,” Omaha Acting Area Director Matt Thurlby said in an agency statement. “When working in dangerously high temperatures, employers are responsible for implementing a heat safety program that includes modifying work practices, using controls to reduce heat stress and requiring water and rest breaks in shaded areas.”
The employees were exposed to direct sunlight where the heat index ranged from 74.7 to 87.8 degrees F, according to the agency. The company lacked any formal process to allow employees to rest and recover, OSHA alleged, exposing employees to heat-related illnesses, including heat strain and heat stroke.
The agency also cited Smith Mountain Investments for failing to have a certified person onsite to perform first aid. There were no employees or supervisors at the Inman, NE worksite trained to provide first aid, according to OSHA. The nearest hospital was 10 minutes away from the worksite and it relied on a volunteer fire department to provide emergency medical services and transportation.
OSHA’s Heat Stress Enforcement
OSHA cites employers in incidents of heat stress using the OSH Act’s general duty clause if employers fail to protect employees from recognized hazards that could cause death, illness, or injury. The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission has criticized OSHA’s enforcement practice.
The review commission has pointed out the difficulty for employers to address hazards like excessive heat that are not covered by an established federal standard. California and Washington have state standards for heat stress prevention and Minnesota has a standard for exposures to both hot and cold environments.
Public Citizen and a coalition of labor organizations have petitioned OSHA to create a federal heat stress standard. The petitioners are seeking a standard that would include hazard control, monitoring, recordkeeping, and training requirements.
Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) and cosponsors introduced a bill in the House of Representatives July 10 that would require OSHA to issue a proposed standard within 2 years and a final regulation within 42 months.
Preventing Heat Illness
OSHA instructed Smith Mount Investments to establish a heat stress management program based on guidelines from the agency and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
An effective heat stress management program includes:
- Determining whether employees are exposed to heat hazards based on temperature and humidity, clothing, and workload;
- Providing employee training on the health effects of heat stress, symptoms of heat-related illnesses, and methods of preventing such illnesses;
- Implementing procedures for acclimatizing employees who are unaccustomed to working in hot conditions;
- Implementing a work/rest regimen to allow workers to become acclimatized to extreme heat;
- Screening employees for health conditions that could become aggravated by hot conditions;
- Rescheduling work for cooler periods of the day;
- Providing equipment such as cooling vests and cooling bandanas to prevent overheating;
- Providing shaded or air-conditioned areas for breaks;
- Utilizing heat assessment tools like NIOSH’s Heat app; and
- Providing effective means of communications and utilizing methods for contacting emergency responders, especially for worksites in rural areas.