By Amanda R. Strainis-Walker and Eric J. Conn

With the dog days of summer around the corner, OSHA just put out a press release reminding employers with outside workplaces about OSHA’s focus on the hazards of working in high heat.  The press release reinvigorates OSHA’s heat-related illness campaign that began leading into last summer, when OSHA produced a great deal of public information about heat-related illness, including a dedicated heat illness information page on OSHA’s website, a YouTube video, public press statements, speeches by senior Department of Labor and OSHA officials, and even a Heat Safety Smartphone App.

The Smartphone App was the first of its kind for OSHA, and was intended to literally put information into the hands of employees and employers in the field about how to identify the heat index value, recognize heat illness symptoms, understand the conditions in which heat can become a health issue, and how to treat it (e.g., take breaks in the shade, drink water, etc.).

The Heat App also reiterates OSHA’s recommended four-step program for employers with outside worksites.  These steps include:

  1. Develop a heat-related illness prevention plan that addresses: (a) supplies (i.e., adequate water supplies and provisions for rest areas); (b) emergency planning and response; (c) worker acclimatization periods; (d) modified work schedules (i.e., planning heavy work early in the day); and (e) training.
  2. Train employees in your heat-related illness prevention plan and safe work practices before they are required to work outside in the heat.  The training should include how to identify risk factors for heal-related illness, and explain the importance of drinking small quantities of water often, the value of acclimatization periods, and the procedures for responding to possible heat-related illness symptoms.
  3. Track the weather at outside worksites daily, and assess the risk to workers.  Know how hot it will be during scheduled work activities, and use that information to plan work and determine which preventive measures should be taken.
  4. Implement your heat-related illness prevention plan when the heat index is at or above 80°F.  Adjust the risk level based on: (a) site conditions (e.g., direct sunlight vs. shade, breeze, etc.); (b) work load; and (c) the type of protective clothing employees are required to wear (e.g., flame retardant clothing).

OSHA has developed a chart for critical actions that employers should take to help prevent heat illnesses at different heat indexes.  OSHA also continues to dedicate substantial resources to talking and producing public materials about heat-related illness to establish this as a “recognized hazard,” and to identify feasible steps employers can take to minimize hazards associated with heat illness.  This goes hand-in-hand with what OSHA must prove to establish violations under Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act (aka, the General Duty Clause).

After initiating the heat-related campaign last summer, OSHA issued at least 10 General Duty Clause violations to employers for failing to have a heat-related prevention plan, among other allegations.  The types of work being performed last year that were subject to General Duty Clause citations included landscaping, commercial farming, outdoor construction, and outdoor maintenance.  For example, a landscaping company allowed a new employee, who became ill with a heat-related illness, to work in the direct sunlight on a hot August day without breaks, an acclimatization program for new employees, or a comprehensive heat-related illness prevention plan.

Now in the second year of the campaign, Employers should expect this summer a surge in such violations for employers with employees exposed to heat illnesses.  OSHA’s heat-related prevention message is clear, “Water.  Rest.  Shade.”  Employers with employees exposed to hazards associated with heat illnesses should follow OSHA’s four step program, or they could find themselves feeling OSHA’s enforcement heat.

For more OSHA guidance on the topic, take a look at OSHA’s heat-related illness page, and here is a link to some of last year’s heat related General Duty Clause citations.