With record heat hitting large swaths of the U.S. this summer, we're revisiting an earlier CorpCounsel.com article about the law surrounding heat-related illness and injury in the workplace.
Mercury levels are surging across much of the United States. Despite high temperatures and muggy conditions, companies with employees working outside don't have the luxury of shutting down for the season.
But for one hour on the morning of June 4, thousands of workers across the Southeast took a break and learned about the dangers of heat-related illnesses. From 7 to 8 a.m. on June 4, the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, trade associations and employers held safety "stand-downs" at construction sites and other workplaces throughout Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida.
According to OSHA, more than 30 workers have died each year of heat stroke since 2003. Although clusters of worker deaths are found in Texas and California, there are also past incidents in states with cooler climates, such as Wisconsin and New Jersey.
OSHA partnered with the Associated General Contractors of Georgia Inc. to conduct the instruction sessions outside of Florida. Cherri Watson, AGC Georgia's director of safety, education and workforce development, said 40 companies had signed up to participate, at 1,130 job sites and involving 51,000 workers. Ninety percent of the stand-down's participants worked in the construction industry.
How hot is too hot?
How hot is too hot? According to OSHA, the heat index, which takes temperature and humidity into account, can offer employers guidance.
But even though OSHA doesn't have a specific heat prevention standard, heat citations fall under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The law requires employers to provide their employees with a place of employment that "is free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees."
More than half of the states in the U.S. have OSHA-approved plans that operate at the state level; they are required to create standards that are at least as effective as those adopted by OSHA.
Bradford Hammock is a partner with Jackson Lewis, practicing exclusively in the safety and health area. The 10-year OSHA lawyer now heads Jackson Lewis's Workplace Safety and Health Practice Group. In his "OSHA Law Blog," Hammock recently discussed considerations for employers wanting to protect workers from heat-related illness.
Hammock said that heat-related illness, including heat exhaustion and heat stroke, is one of the most common injuries he sees in his Reston, Va.-based practice.
Employers can be fined up to $7,000 for heat-related hazards, which are considered serious violations.
Despite their prevalence, however, he says OSHA rarely issues citations related to heat. "OSHA is just not out there in any systematic fashion trying to enforce the general duty clause against heat-related illness," he says. Most citations are the result of a self-reported incident. Under the Act, employers are required to report any fatality or hospitalization of three or more employees within 30 days of an incident.
Almost all of the citations the agency has issued involved the death of a worker. According to a Department of Labor spokesperson, OSHA was aware of just one previous general duty clause citation for a heat hazard that didn't involve a worker fatality.
According to that 2011 citation, employees of Inter Rail Transport Of Palm Center were working outside on an August day with heat indices 99–101.9 degrees Fahrenheit. The employer was ultimately fined $4,200 for allowing "employees to work in a hot environment without the establishment of a heat stress management program which can result in occupational illnesses and injuries."
Handling the heat
Hammock's blog cites these OSHA suggestions for reducing heat-related illness:
• Provide air-conditioned or shaded areas close to the work area, and schedule frequent rest breaks.
• Provide workers with plenty of cool water in convenient, visible locations close to the work area.
• Encourage and remind workers to drink water before they become thirsty—about every 15 minutes.
• Allow workers to get used to heat conditions by gradually increasing exposure over a five-day work period and by implementing more frequent breaks during the first week of work in those conditions.
• Monitor weather reports daily and reschedule jobs with high heat exposure to cooler times of the day.
• Encourage employees to wear or provide employees with light-colored and permeable clothing.
• Monitor workers for signs and symptoms of heat exposure, and encourage employees to report symptoms of any heat-related illnesses.
• Train workers and supervisors about the hazards leading to heat stress and ways to prevent them.
• Implement an emergency plan, and know what to do if someone is experiencing symptoms of a heat-related illness.
Hammock's advice to employers who suspect a worker may be suffering from a heat-related illness is that it's better to be safe than sorry.
"It is a very serious illness and sometimes the symptoms aren't perfectly clear," he says. "Sometimes this can be a fatal situation, so it's always better to err on the safe side. Be conservative and get the type of medical care that the person needs as soon as possible."
Shannon Green writes for Corporate Counsel, a Daily Report affiliate.