The Department of Labor (DOL) has announced efforts to address heat-related illnesses by combating indoor and outdoor heat exposure hazards. Markedly, the actions are part of the Biden Administration’s commitment to workplace safety, climate resilience, and environmental justice. Explicitly, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) wants to protect workers and reduce the dangers of ambient heat exposure. Earlier this month, OSHA published a revised anti-retaliation final rule within its Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.
Background on Heat-Related Illnesses
Overall, heat illness is largely preventable and commonly under-reported. For instance, thousands of workers are sickened each year by workplace heat exposure. Meanwhile, 43 workers died from heat illness in 2019, and at least 2,410 others suffered severe injuries and illnesses. The Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center estimates the economic loss from heat to be at least $100 billion annually. Furthermore, that number could double by 2030 and quintuple by 2050 under a higher emissions scenario.
OSHA’s Response to Heat-Related Illnesses
As a result of the rising numbers of workplace heat illnesses, OSHA is doing the following:
- implementing an enforcement initiative on heat-related hazards;
- developing a National Emphasis Program on heat inspections; and
- launching a rulemaking process to establish a workplace heat standard.
Accordingly, the enforcement initiative protects workers from heat-related illnesses and deaths while working in hazardous hot environments. As a matter of fact, the newly established initiative prioritizes heat-related interventions and inspections of work activities. For example, prioritization occurs on days when the heat index exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The initiative applies to indoor and outdoor worksites in general industry, construction, agriculture, and maritime where potential heat-related hazards exist. Certainly, OSHA encourages employers to implement intervention methods on heat priority days proactively, including:
- regularly taking breaks for water, rest, and shade;
- training workers on how to identify common symptoms;
- what to do when a worker suspects a heat-related illness is occurring; and
- taking periodic measurements to determine workers’ heat exposure.
Finally, in October 2021, OSHA will begin preparing a federal heat standard to ensure workplace protections across the country. Generally, that starts by issuing an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on heat injury and illness prevention in work settings. Markedly, the advance notice will initiate a comment period to gather diverse perspectives and technical expertise on topics including:
- heat stress thresholds,
- heat acclimatization planning,
- exposure monitoring, and
- strategies to protect workers.