What Are the New OSHA Heat Regulations? + How to Develop a Heat Safety Plan
As we await OSHA’s formal heat regulations, get a head start on heat safety policies and practices to protect employees.
The height of summer is here, and so are record-breaking temperatures. Heat waves have gripped huge chunks of the United States over the past weeks, and Europe is literally melting.
Extreme temperatures create eye-catching headlines, but hot environments are a daily fact of life in many workplaces. Researchers found that outdoor workers in the U.S. face up to 35 times the risk of dying from heat exposure compared to the average American. Employees in indoor settings also risk exposure to high heat—facilities such as warehouses and factories rarely have air conditioning, and equipment like furnaces and ovens exacerbate high temperatures.
Despite these risks, employers have lacked clear national standards for dealing with heat-related hazards. However, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) plans to release official heat regulations soon, which will provide long-awaited clarity and guidance. In this article, we’ll look at how companies can prepare for the upcoming regulations and create a safer workplace.
Deciphering OSHA’s Current Heat Regulations and Recommendations
Far from a new phenomenon, heat-related stress in the workplace has high financial and emotional costs for both businesses and employees. However, OSHA has never issued direct regulations on the subject. Instead, they’ve relied on the General Duty Clause when issuing heat-related citations. While the general intent is sound—no one would argue against employers providing a safe workplace—the approach is simply too broad to be effective in practice.
For employers, it creates a guessing game of what constitutes a hazard. There are countless variables that contribute to heat-related illnesses, such as an individual’s age, health, and diet. Conditions that are dangerous for one employee might be perfectly safe for others. Balancing duty of care with business continuity is already difficult for many companies, but unclear guidance only aggravates the problem.
The lack of regulations has also made issuing citations difficult. Numerous OSHA violations related to heat have been reversed upon appeal, including a high-profile case in 2019, Secretary of Labor v. A.H. Sturgill Roofing, Inc. OSHA points to NIOSH’s Recommended Heat Standard as guidance but has largely been unable to pursue meaningful enforcement.
To further complicate matters, employers must still comply with OSHA’s recordkeeping requirements for workplace illnesses and injuries. Whenever an employee requires treatment beyond first aid, you have to log the incident.
While federal OSHA standards related to heat safety are still pending, three states have existing regulations:
- California: CalOSHA has the most comprehensive directives for employers, including training and planning requirements.
- Minnesota: Their rules cover only indoor workplaces but set forth regulations for both hot and cold temperatures.
- Washington: Conversely, Washington’s legislation applies to employees only in outdoor settings.
What to Expect from OSHA’s New Heat Illness and Injury Prevention Rules
In the fall of 2021, President Biden’s administration launched an interagency initiative to protect workers and communities from extreme heat. As part of that campaign, the Department of Labor initiated the process of creating formal regulations surrounding heat hazards.
The new rules are still pending, but the process of collecting public comments gives a lot of insight into what they are likely to contain:
- Illness reporting: Injuries like a broken finger are easy to identify, but heat-related illnesses vary widely in symptoms and severity. Detailed reporting—including conditions like heat stroke and heat exhaustion—will help refine the rulemaking process over time. Additionally, more extensive reporting is expected to help address the disproportionate effect of heat hazards on people of color and economically disadvantaged groups.
- Prevention and training programs: Existing state regulations are a possible clue of what federal regulations will include. For example, California’s training requirements for both employees and supervisors are a potential model for what companies will need to offer in the future.
- Environmental monitoring: OSHA currently recommends using wet bulb globe temperature (WBGT) devices to track workplace heat. According to the National Weather Service, WGBT measures the impact of heat in direct sunlight, taking into account temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun angle, and cloud cover. It’s a safe bet that WBGT monitoring will be a component of the upcoming regulations. Some industry groups have suggested the use of a heat index for environmental monitoring. However, OSHA has traditionally shied away from that metric because it takes into account fewer variables than WBGT monitoring.
- Engineering and administrative controls: Engineering controls vary widely by setting—what applies to a bakery wouldn’t make any sense for a landscaping company. However, there are many contextual and situational engineering requirements that could end up in the final regulations based on industry, company size, and workplace circumstances. Additionally, administrative procedures are likely to be a key component of the rules.
- Personal protective equipment: OSHA already regulates PPE from a variety of other safety perspectives. Extending those rules to the prevention of heat-related illnesses and fatalities is a natural fit. Certain types of PPE can also increase the risk of overheating, so regulations will likely address balancing protection from other hazards against temperature-related dangers.
Start by Assessing Employees’ Level of Risk from Environmental Heat Stress
The details of OSHA’s heat regulations are pending, but it’s never too soon to work on building a safer work environment. As with any work-related hazard, prevention starts with understanding your level of exposure to risks. There are concrete steps you can take internally to identify and mitigate risks of heat-related illnesses.
Get an onsite consultation
One option for assessing your risks is to take advantage of OSHA’s voluntary onsite consultations. A specialist will visit your worksite to evaluate potential heat-related hazards and make recommendations on existing prevention and training measures.
The service is completely free and confidential, and they won’t issue any fines or citations. Your company will need to correct any serious hazards that they identify, but the consultation also qualifies you for a one-year exemption from OSHA inspections.
Teach heat hazard recognition
When discussing situational awareness in the workplace, hazards like a wet floor or dangerous chemicals are easy to identify. However, the same concepts apply to recognizing heat hazards, which can be more nuanced. Employees need to be aware of their surroundings and make decisions accordingly.
There are several key factors to monitor when assessing the dangers of extreme heat:
- Environmental factors such as air temperature, sunlight, humidity, and airflow
- Level of exertion and workload
- Clothing or PPE that impacts the body’s ability to shed heat
- Presence of excess heat sources like ovens or furnaces
Understand personal risk factors
Every employee at a worksite is subject to the same environment, but their bodies will each handle it differently. It’s critical for workers to understand the personal risk factors that can increase sensitivity to heat-related illnesses:
- Body weight, especially obesity
- Diabetes, high blood pressure, and other chronic health conditions
- General physical fitness level
- Medications that impact hydration or sweating
- Overall alcohol intake
- Illicit drugs that affect the body’s metabolism
Establish a Heat Illness Prevention Plan to Protect Employees
When it comes to heat hazards, there are a variety of risk factors to monitor, environmental conditions may change rapidly, and it can be challenging to spot early signs of illness. Building heat-related illness prevention into your workplace safety policy is integral to ensuring your employees engage in safe work practices.
Here are six areas to focus on when establishing plans and protocols for heat safety.
1. Hydration and rest breaks
- Develop a mandatory break schedule and increase the frequency as the risk of heat-related illness rises
- Set up easily accessible hydration stations with enough drinking water for each employee to consume one quart per hour
- Provide sports drinks, ice pops, and hydration supplements
- Make first aid kits available throughout worksites, and regularly check that they’re fully stocked
2. Engineering controls
- Make cooling systems such as air conditioning and fans available wherever possible
- Install insulation around heat sources and use reflective shields to redirect radiant heat
- Improve ventilation and airflow wherever possible to encourage heat dissipation
- Leverage powered equipment like conveyors and forklifts to reduce employee workload and physical exertion
- At outdoor worksites, set up ample shade and misters for employees to cool off during breaks
- Use a wet bulb globe temperature device to monitor environmental conditions
- Train all employees on precautions to take in hot environments and how to adjust to changing conditions
- Make sure workers understand the early signs of heat-related illness and set clear action plans for how to report symptoms
- Provide first aid classes, instructions on how to treat heat-related illnesses, and guidance on when to seek emergency medical care
- Discuss contingency plans for possible complications like unseasonably warm temperatures, power outages, and broken cooling systems
- Include heat hazard planning in monthly safety meetings during warmer months to serve as a refresher for employees
4. New workers and acclimatization
- Ensure new workers have clothing that is well ventilated and allows excess body heat to dissipate
- Follow acclimatization guidelines by restricting new workers to no more than 20% of a shift at full intensity, increasing by 20% each day until they’re comfortable with the conditions
- Pair newer workers with experienced employees who can help them understand the work conditions and ease into the situation
- Train supervisors to proactively monitor new hires and ensure they’re taking frequent breaks, hydrating, and following your company’s heat policies
5. Work practices
- Create an inclement weather policy that includes contingencies for extreme heat
- When possible, schedule work during cooler parts of the day, such as early morning
- Set a maximum temperature for work as appropriate for your environmental conditions
- Rotate high-effort job functions among workers to minimize exertion and workload
- Use an employee safety monitoring platform to communicate weather conditions and give employees a way to report issues or illnesses in real time
6. Personal protective equipment
- Identify how PPE increases heat hazards and factor that into your plans to monitor conditions
- Encourage the use of reflective clothing, as well as light and loose-fitting materials
- In outdoor settings, provide sunscreen and give employees the option to wear hats as long as they don’t conflict with other PPE guidelines
- Provide cooling neck wraps and jackets or vests with built-in ice packs to help reduce body temperature
Plan Ahead to Implement OSHA Recommendations for Heat Safety
Environmental conditions are outside of your control, and for many industries, working in high temperatures is unavoidable. That’s why your company needs a heat illness prevention plan based on OSHA recommendations for heat safety—to keep business running without sacrificing your employees’ well-being.
Given the increasing risk and high cost of heat-related incidents to your business and your people, the anticipation for OSHA’s new regulations is palpable. The forthcoming regulations will help shape and refine your heat illness prevention plan, but starting the process now gives you a head start. Whether you’re starting from scratch or refining existing heat hazard policies, your employees’ health and safety depend on robust prevention, training, and response plans.
With proper foresight, your employees can stay cool on even the hottest days and happily return to the comfort of their air-conditioned homes after a hard day’s work.