Injuries and Illness, Personnel Safety

OSHA Warns Employers of Heat Hazards

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on July 12 called on employers in Western New York to protect workers from heat stress and illness hazards related to high temperatures. The agency acknowledged the anniversary of a worker’s heat-related fatality in Geneseo, New York.

On July 7, 2020, Timothy Barber collapsed at the end of his shift after working on the Genesee River Bridge Project in Geneseo. Treated for heat stress and heat exhaustion, Barber died from hyperthermia on his second day on the job.

OSHA inspectors determined that Barber’s employer failed to train him and implement other safeguards to protect him and other employees from extreme heat hazards. He had been performing light-duty work sorting bolts in 90-plus degree temperatures. Working alone, he was without shade, without water, and not acclimated to the heat, according to the agency.

“Don’t wait until a worker is sickened to address heat stress—take action,” OSHA’s Buffalo Area Director Michael Scime warned employers in a statement.

“Three simple words: water, rest, shade can make a huge difference when implemented in the workplace,” Scime continued.

There currently is no federal standard for heat stress or heat illness prevention, but the agency on June 11 added a heat illness prevention rulemaking to its Spring 2021 regulatory agenda. OSHA plans to issue a request for information this October for stakeholder input on a possible heat illness prevention standard.

The agency has cited employers in cases of worker heat illnesses using the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. In 2019, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission vacated an OSHA citation under the general duty clause, calling its use a “gotcha” or “catchall” for hazards with no established standards. The commissioners pointed to the difficulty for employers to address hazards like excessive heat when there are no established federal standards.

Existing and New State Heat Standards

California and Washington state both have permanent heat illness prevention standards. Minnesota has a standard for exposures to both heat and cold. On July 8, Oregon OSHA adopted an emergency rule protecting workers from excessive heat and includes provisions for access to drinking water and shade, acclimatization, emergency medical plans, high-heat practices for when the ambient heat index exceeds 90°F, and employee and supervisor training requirements. High-heat practices include worker observation and a mandatory buddy system, a minimum 10-minute preventative cool-down rest period in the shade at least every 2 hours, and designating and equipping an employee authorized to call for emergency medical services.

The Oregon emergency rule was effective July 8 and remains in place for 180 days. Oregon OSHA has been developing a permanent heat illness prevention standard, expected this fall.

Virginia’s Safety and Health Codes Board recently announced its intention to propose a heat illness prevention standard. AIHA (formerly the American Industrial Hygiene Association) wrote the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry to express its support for the planned state standard.