Heat illness, Regulatory Developments

Cal/OSHA Proposes Indoor Heat Standard

On March 31, the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board announced it will hold a hearing on May 18 regarding a proposed indoor heat illness prevention standard from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA). The board will accept public comments until 5 p.m. on May 18.

If approved, the proposed standard will require employers to:

  • Establish, implement, and maintain a written heat illness prevention program, which may be part of employers’ injury and illness prevention programs.
  • Provide fresh, cool drinking water free of charge.
  • Maintain cooldown areas.
  • Collect temperature and heat index measurements, and assess prevention program control measures.
  • Develop and implement emergency response procedures for signs and symptoms of heat illness.
  • Closely observe employees during heat acclimatization periods.
  • Provide employee and supervisor training.

Cal/OSHA was directed by a state law enacted in 2016 to develop a standard for minimizing heat illnesses among indoor workers. California’s legislature passed the bill to address hazards workers face working in hot environments in indoor settings without air conditioning, such as factories, foundries, kitchens, and warehouses. These workers are often unable to take advantage of hot weather cease-work orders that protect outdoor workers.

The state agency held three advisory committee hearings between February 2017 and February 2018.

While heat illness may be underreported, Cal/OSHA cited research into workers’ compensation claims regarding heat illnesses among indoor workers. Indoor workers do have current protections under Cal/OSHA’s injury and illness prevention program (IIPP) standard—employers must identify and evaluate workplace hazards under the IIPP standard and correct unsafe or unhealthy conditions—but Senate Bill 1167, enacted in 2016, requires Cal/OSHA to develop a formal standard for heat illness prevention in indoor workplaces.

California already has a state standard for heat illness prevention in places of outdoor employment. In 2021, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) researchers concluded that farmworkers in California remain at risk for heat-related illness despite farms’ compliance with the state’s heat illness prevention program standard. Researchers recommended that the state revise its regulations to adjust work rates and hydration requirements and add training recommendations relevant to the cultural and behavioral needs of the state’s farmworkers.

There is no federal heat illness prevention standard, so the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cites employers—often following illnesses, hospitalizations, and fatalities—using its authority under the General Duty Clause (§5(a)(1)) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

In 2021, OSHA issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) for a federal standard for heat illness prevention in outdoor and indoor work settings. Last spring, OSHA also launched an indoor and outdoor heat-related hazards National Emphasis Program (NEP). Under the NEP, agency compliance safety and health officers (CSHOs) may make self-referrals at worksites where they suspect workers are exposed to heat hazards. Area offices may also accept referrals from the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division.

However, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission has vacated some of the agency’s heat stress or heat illness citations, calling the agency’s General Duty Clause enforcement a “gotcha” or “catch-all” for hazards without formal standards. For example, the review commission recently vacated a series of OSHA citations of the U.S. Postal Service.

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