Over the last several years, we’ve seen federal OSHA launch national emphasis programs (NEPs) for COVID-19, trenches and silica. Now, for the first time in its history, the agency is launching an NEP for heat illness.
“From farm workers in California to construction workers in Texas and warehouse workers in Pennsylvania, heat illness – exacerbated by our climate’s rising temperatures – presents a growing hazard for millions of workers,” said Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh. “This enforcement program is another step towards our goal of a federal heat standard. Through this work, we’re also empowering workers with knowledge of their rights, especially the right to speak up about their safety without fear of retaliation.”
The heat illness NEP covers both outdoor and indoor workers in high-risk work settings across the general, construction, agriculture and maritime industries. Under the emphasis program, OSHA inspectors will initiate additional enforcement and outreach efforts on days when the heat index reaches 80oF or higher. The NEP also directs OSHA inspectors to look for and address heat hazards during other routine inspections, particularly if the National Weather Service has issued a heat advisory for the area.
Launching a heat illness NEP shows that federal OSHA recognizes more needs to be done to protect at-risk workers from heat illness until a permanent standard can be put in place. Last October, the agency announced its intention to create a federal heat illness standard, but with the generally slow pace of the rulemaking process, it’s likely to be some time before we see a proposed rule.
“Even without a standard, employers should be proactive about taking action to protect workers from the heat,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “Providing workers with water, rest and shade is one of the simplest, most cost-effective steps employers can take to protect workers’ health. When combined with training on the signs of heat illness and empowering workers to speak up if they feel ill, we can greatly reduce risk in high-heat conditions.”
In addition to heat illness prevention programs, LIUNA signatory contractors, Local Unions and other LIUNA affiliates can protect LIUNA members by taking advantage of the LHSFNA’s annual Sun Sense Plus campaign. The campaign raises awareness about the dangers of skin cancer and heat illness by distributing educational materials and accompanying products, including sunscreen, lip balm, neck flaps, cooling cloths, insect repellent towelettes and tick keys. To order, visit the Fund’s homepage at www.lhsfna.org and click “Order Sun Sense Plus.”
The NEP expands on ongoing initiatives to protect workers from high-heat conditions at a time when extreme heat is becoming more common. As the OSHA fact sheet detailing the heat illness NEP points out, 18 of the last 19 summers have been the hottest on record. It used to be noteworthy when an area of the country experienced a heat wave that took temperatures over 100oF. Now, it happens all the time, even in areas like the Pacific Northwest we don’t typically associate with these conditions. In June of 2021, a record heat wave in Oregon pushed temperatures to 117oF and was responsible for over 100 deaths in just four days.
This NEP is part of a broader push by the Biden-Harris administration to protect the public from the effects of climate change and acknowledge that some communities face greater risks than others. For example, Hispanic and Black workers are overrepresented in industries like agriculture, where the risk from heat illness is much greater than other industries. In some cases, the workers who spend their days toiling in the sun pouring hot asphalt on road jobs or shoulder to shoulder with coworkers in high-heat factory conditions then leave work for homes without air conditioning.
Protecting Workers in High-Heat Conditions
Unlike some other hazards in the construction industry, protecting construction workers and other outdoor workers from heat illness is relatively straightforward. Workers need access to cool water throughout their shift and the ability to take regular rest breaks in the shade when conditions warrant it or when they feel the signs of heat illness. Employers should train all workers to recognize the signs of heat illness in themselves and their coworkers. Employers should also implement acclimatization procedures for workers who aren’t used to working in high-heat conditions and for all workers at the start of heat waves.
Federal OSHA’s NEP went into effect in April and will remain in effect for three years. Without a federal heat illness standard, enforcement action based on the NEP will take place under OSHA’s general duty clause, which requires employers to protect workers from recognized hazards. At the state level, several states are in the process of turning the emergency heat illness rules put into place last summer into permanent standards.
There’s no reason for employers in construction or other industries to wait on federal OSHA or state programs to take action. Providing workers with water, rest and shade is easy, and it has the added benefit of maintaining productivity levels and worker morale as well.