As part of the Biden administration’s push to enhance worker safety across the U.S., OSHA recently announced its National Emphasis Program to protect employees from heat-related hazards that can cause injuries and illnesses in outdoor and indoor workplaces.
This is the first time OSHA has issued a NEP for preventing heat-related illnesses like heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat rash. OSHA doesn’t have a federal standard for heat illness but industry experts anticipate that the NEP is a precursor to OSHA creating a rule on heat illness and injury. The NEP is in effect until April 8, 2025. NEPs are temporary programs that focus OSHA’s resources for education, inspection, and enforcement on hazards and high-hazard industries. Fairly uncommon, OSHA has only issued 11 NEPs. Past NEPs have focused on hazards such as COVID-19, lead, and hazardous machinery.
OSHA increases efforts to inspect for heat-related illnesses
The NEP on heat-related illnesses relies on the heat index chart used by the National Weather Service to determine heat hazards but some experts question whether that chart is scientifically accurate.
Because OSHA has no heat-related or heat stress standard in place, federal OSHA has traditionally enforced heat-related hazards through its General Duty Clause. This standard requires employers to provide a work environment that is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.
The heat threshold for inspections is 80 degrees Fahrenheit and higher because manual labor, such as shoveling, pushing, pulling, lifting heavy loads, or working at a fast pace, are all occupational hazards that can become greater risks when temperatures are higher. Without access to shade in those temperatures, OSHA says more serious illnesses and injuries are likely to happen.
Between 2015 and 2020, OSHA conducted almost 200 heat-related hazard inspections per year, including 15 heat-related inspections due to a fatality.
There are two types of OSHA inspections for employers when it comes to heat-related illnesses:
- 1. Program inspections. This includes cattle ranchers and farms, auto, chemical, and steel manufacturers, as well as industries with high heat exposures such as construction and oil & gas. OSHA has indicated it will step up inspections of these types of businesses based on the National Weather Service heat advisories and warnings when the temperatures are above 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
- 2. Open inspections. OSHA will inspect the 300 OSHA (injury) logs from companies with the potential of high heat exposures to see if any employees have reported heat-related illnesses in the past. A past heat-related illness can trigger an open inspection.
4 Actions employers can take to prepare for the OSHA NEP
In the last few years, OSHA has issued information on ways to prevent heat-related illness. Here are four actions employers can take immediately to keep workers safe and prepare for an OSHA inspection this summer.
- Develop a written heat-illness and injury-prevention plan that includes information on how you provide the following:
- Cool, clean, potable water for workers
- Adequate rest periods
- Cool shaded areas for workers to rest in
- Frequent breaks
- A period of time for new workers to adjust to the temperatures they will be working in
- Designate one qualified person at each worksite who will be responsible for monitoring workers on days of extreme heat
- Train your employees on the hazards related to working in excessive heat, how to prevent heat-related illnesses and the signs and symptoms of the onset of heat stress.
- Conduct a hazard analysis of job duties and positions that can involve exposure to extreme heat in both indoor and outdoor workplaces
- Review your 300 OSHA (injury) logs to see if there were any heat-related illnesses or injuries related to worker exposures in an occupational setting
Companies that educate their workforce about heat-illness safety and take steps to protect employees will be prepared for the OSHA NEP and any subsequent federal regulations around preventing heat-illness and injury.