Safety and OSHA News

OSHA won’t enact heat stress standard — for now

OSHA has denied a request by several groups to enact an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) setting a heat threshold level for workers. But OSHA is addressing the issue, including enforcement through the General Duty Clause (GDC).

Public Citizen and other groups and individuals asked OSHA to enact a heat stress ETS.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, OSHA can issue an ETS when it finds employees are exposed to a grave danger from exposures and that the ETS would be necessary to protect workers. The ETS would remain in effect for up to six months at which time OSHA would be required to issue a permanent standard.

A “grave danger” finding is necessary for OSHA to issue an ETS. Grave danger is defined as evidence of a serious health impairment involving incurable, permanent or fatal consequences. Grave danger also involves risk that is higher than the “significant risk” that is required to support a permanent standard.

OSHA says the mortality rate for heat-related deaths does not exceed those of other hazards that are classified as significant, so an ETS can’t be issued.

Also standing in OSHA’s way: court challenges.

Several times in OSHA’s 40-year history, courts have overturned the agency’s attempts to use an ETS.

No lack of enforcement

Despite not enacting a heat stress ETS, OSHA still has several tools at its disposal to issue citations to companies if workers suffer heat stress:

  • The GDC: OSHA can cite an employer for violating the GDC if the company has exposed employees to serious, recognized heat hazards. In the past 25 years, OSHA has issued 43 GDC violations for heat exposures in the following industries: landscaping, roofing, farming, construction/paving, tree cutting and garbage collection.
  • The Recordkeeping regulation: If a worker receives intravenous fluids, the case must be recorded on the OSHA 300 Log.
  • The Sanitation standards require employers to provide potable water that is readily accessible to workers.
  • The Medical Services and First Aid standards require people be adequately trained to administer first aid if medical facilities aren’t close by.
  • The Safety Training and Education standard requires employers in the construction industry to train employees in the recognition, avoidance and prevention of unsafe conditions in the workplace, and
  • The Personal Protective Equipment standard requires every employer in general industry to conduct a hazard assessment to determine appropriate PPE to be used to protect employees from identified hazards. Similar standards also exist for the shipyard, maritime and construction industries.

You probably noticed the headline of this story says OSHA doesn’t plan on a heat stress standard “for now.”

Why might federal OSHA still consider a heat stress standard eventually? First of all, some states, including California, have their own regulations regarding heat stress.

The second reason is this sentence from OSHA’s letter, stating its rejection of an ETS for heat stress: “Although OSHA is not planning on promulgating a standard to address the risks associated with exposure to extreme heat in outdoor workers anytime soon, the Agency has recently taken a number of actions to protect workers from this hazard.”

As the above sentence notes, the agency hasn’t exactly closed the door on the idea.

Rejecting the request for an ETS was just practicality on the part of OSHA. Other attempts at creating an ETS for other occupational hazards have failed in court. Having to defend the ETS in court would just take the agency’s time and scarce resources.

And a recent report shows it takes, on average, eight years to enact a new OSHA regulation. Even if OSHA started the process of creating a heat stress standard tomorrow, it wouldn’t take effect for years.

Should federal OSHA enact a heat stress standard? Or do you think the enforcement tools it already has at its disposal are sufficient? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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  1. Safety Lady says:

    I would think that employers with employees exposed to extreme high or low temps should be smart enough to pull employees when the temperature is likely to cause an illness i.e. heat exhaustion/stroke. Additionally if an employee has to go to the doctor for heat exhaustion generally they are dehydrated and have to get IV’s making it a recordable illness.

    Many employers have their own standards of when heat is to high. I think the methods that OSHA has for enforcement now should be sufficient.

  2. The last thing we need is yet another OSHA law or regulation. We realize that without our employees, we have nothing and we protect their safety at all times. Each spring we review both proactive and reactive responses to extreme weather, with reminders several times during the summer. Employees know what signs to look for in a co-worker and they remind each other to drink water and to take breaks as needed. We depend on employees to tell us when it’s too much as well. Sometimes we shut down a job early or let them start work early so they don’t lose too many hours. In other words, we do everything possible to protect our employees without another regulation. However, I realize that some of OSHA’s regulations are in response to irresponsible employers, but the alternate citations listed in the article should be enough.

  3. OSHA has enough rules as it is. The genral duty clause is sufficent to handle this issue. OSHA says the mortality rate for heat-related deaths does not exceed those of other hazards that are classified as significant. Let the employers do thier job do not make thing worse. Most people have enough common sence to stopa and get a drink or get out of the sun.

  4. A performance based standard would allow the employer to select from a variety of criteria based on the age and physical condition of each member in a given work crew. The effects of heat varies so much for different individuals that a one size specification standard would not permit more than a few hours of work per shift in the summer.

    I have provided IH/safety oversight on projects where the client had very restrictive heat stress procedures based on the recommendations of the ACGIH and productivity ground to practically a stand still.

    Since there is no standard OSHA is free to cite the employer under the General Duty Clause and the employer is free to appeal. However, as long as the employer had constructive knowledge of the hazard and the employee was injured the citation would most likely be upheld upon appeal.

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