Working in Extreme Heat: a 2023 Crisis?

2023 Heatwave, a crisis for OSHA?

The US has been hit with another record heat wave which is the second heatwave to be reported upon in 2023.

This has created sweltering conditions, particularly for outdoor workers and laborers in the farming industry. Democrats have vocally warned that climate change will continue to make this trend worse.

Federal Action Demanded to Address Extreme Heat

With this in mind, a new group of Democratic members from the House and Senate are joining together to lobby the Biden administration to create new federal rules to protect workers from heat-related injuries in the workplace.

In a letter purported to be sent by the group on Monday, this group are requesting better regulations to ensure workers have adequate:

  • Water breaks, 
  • Rest periods 
  • Shaded areas or air conditioning, 
  • Access to medical services 
  • Workplace plan for acclimatization to high-heat work conditions.

The letter is led by Rep. Greg Casar (TX) and co-led by Reps. Judy Chu (CA), Sylvia Garcia (TX), Raúl Grijalva (AZ) and Bobby Scott (VA), along with Sens. Sherrod Brown (OH), Catherine Cortez Masto (NV), Alex Padilla (CA) and Bernie Sanders (VT).

As of Sunday 23 July 2023, the letter had 112 signatures. It is addressed to acting Labor Secretary Julie Su and OSHA Assistant Secretary Douglas Parker. OSHA is part of the Department of Labor.

Cesar stated: “This very common sense proposal to make sure that workers have the water breaks they need—this is the kind of thing that it shouldn’t be a left-or-right issue,”

Casar said he’s met with the head of OSHA a number of times. “They were committed to working on this, but of course they’re going to face opposition from big business interests that try to slow down worker protections,” he said.

Casar added: “And it became clear to me after that conversation that Congress needed to be heavily advocating for this if we wanted to get it done.”

Labor regulations remain a thorny issue for Congress and they face difficulty in enacting bipartisan policy. 

In the previous term, Democrats alone were forced to remove a provision on universal paid leave from their Build Back Better Act because they could not secure votes from moderate Democrats in the Senate.

Lack of Progress Raises Concerns

Congress has not made much progress on labor issues either between the Republican House and Democratic Senate, despite a surge of labor organizing and strike action.

Organizers of the letter said this leaves them counting on the Biden administration to take action.

“Ohioans shouldn’t have to risk their health in extreme heat to provide for their families,” Sen. Brown said in a statement. “OSHA must create national standards and protections to keep workers safe on the job, as the risks of heat stress increase.”

Sen. Sanders had similar feelings.

“These heat waves are dangerous, they are life-threatening, and—with the devastating effects of climate change, they are only getting worse,” he said in a statement. “I urge the Administration to move quickly to create this national heat standard to protect workers on the job.

The threat of heat exposure to workers

Prolonged exposure to heat can lead to potentially life-threatening conditions like heat stroke, dehydration and exhaustion. 

A May report from the nonprofit advocacy group Public Citizen discovered up to 2,000 workers fatalities a year in the United States due to heat exposure.

At the federal level, there are currently some specific guidelines that employers must follow for extreme heat. A Washington Post report also noted that enforcement is patchy, and often reserved for extreme cases of loss-of-life or injury.

Casar said the urgency around the issue is due to a recently signed bill in Texas that will rollback municipal laws in Dallas and Austin that mandate rest breaks for construction workers. With action by Congress likely out of the question, he said he’s counting on the administration to issue executive action.

OSHA does have the authority to unilaterally enact some safety regulations around labor.

Lack of specific federal regulations for extreme heat or cold

There are no specific federal regulations about working in extreme heat or cold in the US. However, workers have a right to a workplace free from recognized hazards, which includes exposure to extreme temperatures. 

Some states have more rigorous rules regarding heat, such as California, Washington, and Minnesota. 

The US Department of Labor is also launching a rulemaking process to protect workers from heat injury and illness in outdoor and indoor work settings. 

For working in cold environments, OSHA recommends employers to provide adequate training, protective clothing, and frequent breaks for workers.

States with additional regulation on extreme heat when working

The following states have more rigorous rules regarding heat than the federal standards:

  • California: California’s Heat Illness Prevention Standard requires employers to provide training, water, shade, and planning. A temperature of 80°F triggers the requirements.
  • Washington: Washington State’s Outdoor Heat Exposure Rule requires employers to provide training, water, rest breaks, and emergency response for outdoor workers when the temperature is above a certain threshold.
  • Minnesota: Minnesota’s standard applies to indoor places of employment and sets limits for heat exposure based on the type of work and the wet bulb globe temperature.
  • Colorado: Colorado’s standard requires employers to provide water, rest breaks, shade, and acclimatization for outdoor workers when the temperature is above 80°F or 90°F depending on the industry.
  • Maryland: Maryland’s standard requires employers to implement a heat illness prevention program that includes training, water, rest breaks, shade, acclimatization, and emergency response for outdoor workers when the heat index is above 80°F.
  • Oregon: Oregon’s standard requires employers to provide training, water, rest breaks, shade, acclimatization, and emergency response for outdoor and indoor workers when the heat index is above 80°F or 90°F depending on the industry.

Heat and Cold stress OSHA Training Coverage

Heat stress and cold stress safety are an internal part of the curriculum for both the OSHA 30 Construction and the OSHA 30 General safety supervision courses. 

Here at Stay Certified we offer both of these courses which include in depth training modules on managing heat hazards and cold stress in the workplace.

You can begin your journey to get OSHA certified right here.

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