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Published: August, 2021; Vol 18, Num 4

 

Western States Set Emergency Heat Standards to Protect Outdoor Workers

LHSFNA Management
Co-Chairman
Noel C. Borck

Every year in the U.S., high temperatures kill more people than any other weather-related hazard, including hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and lightning strikes. For the last several months, much of the western U.S. has been experiencing higher than average temperatures, in some cases setting new records. In late June, it reached 116°F at Portland International Airport, and in other parts of Oregon it was even hotter. Both Oregon and Washington state’s OSHA programs saw the immediate hazard for outdoor workers and acted quickly to pass emergency protections.

“These emergency rules will help protect LIUNA members and other workers who spend most of their workday outdoors,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “High-heat conditions like we’ve been seeing across the U.S. create a serious yet preventable hazard. This is especially true for construction workers, who are already at higher risk for heat illness due to the strenuous, physically demanding work they perform.”

Requirements in the Oregon Standard

With its new emergency rule, Oregon now has the strongest measures of any state in the country when it comes to protecting outdoor workers from heat illness. That’s in part because the rule uses the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service [NOAA/NWS] heat index instead of temperature alone.

The rule also requires employers to start taking proactive steps to protect workers from heat illness at lower temperature thresholds than similar standards:

  • Once the heat index reaches 80°F either indoors or outdoors, employers must:
    • Provide a shaded area where employees can cool down from the heat.
    • Provide enough cool, drinkable water for all employees to drink at least 32 ounces per hour and provide time to drink it.
  • High-heat procedures go into effect once the heat index reaches 90°F. Employers must:
    • Ensure workers take a cool-down rest period of at least 10 minutes at least every two hours. This paid rest period occurs regardless of the length of the shift.
    • Monitor workers for signs of heat illness or implement a buddy system so workers can monitor one another.
    • Implement an emergency medical plan detailing the steps that will be taken if a worker suffers heat illness.
    • Develop and implement acclimatization measures for workers.

Requirements in the Washington Standard

Washington state was already one of only three states with permanent heat exposure rules for workers (California and Minnesota are the others). The new emergency rule expands on and clarifies the existing standard, which is normally in effect from May through September.

  • When temperatures reach or exceed 89°F, employers must:
    • Provide enough cool, drinkable water for all employees to drink at least 32 ounces per hour and provide time to drink it.
    • Allow and encourage workers to take preventive rest breaks to cool down.
    • Have a written heat exposure program and provide training to workers about the dangers of heat illness and its symptoms.
  • When temperatures reach or exceed 100°F, employers must:
    • Ensure workers take a cool-down rest period of at least 10 minutes at least every two hours.
    • Provide a shaded area where employees can cool down from the heat.

Setting the Stage for Further Heat Standards

In last month’s issue of Lifelines, we covered how federal OSHA could turn the heat illness prevention best practices of water, rest and shade into an enforceable nationwide standard. With these two new emergency rules, state OSHA programs are leading the way and showing what’s possible.

In states with neither emergency or permanent heat standards, the Fund encourages employers to use these rules as a guide and be proactive about protecting workers. Provide water, shade and encourage workers to take breaks when needed. Train workers to recognize the signs of heat illness in themselves and their coworkers, and stop work and move to a shaded area if they feel sick. Outdoor workers can do their part by starting their workday fully hydrated, drinking plenty of water throughout the day and speaking up if they feel ill. 

[Nick Fox]