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Temperature spikes throughout the U.S. and especially the Pacific Northwest have brought the issue of heat stress to the forefront, with multiple states and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration crafting standards to protect workers.
The past seven years have been the hottest on record in the U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and in June, locales in Oregon, Washington State and western Canada reported temperatures that in some cases smashed previous all-time highs by more than 10 degrees.
Although official figures have not been released, the affected states predict that hundreds of people died because of the heat.
Between 1992 and 2017, the most recent statistics available from OSHA, heat stress injuries killed 815 U.S. workers and seriously injured more than 70,000.
“As heat generally becomes more of an issue, such as the heat wave we just had throughout the Pacific Northwest, it’s really highlighted some of the concerns that other jurisdictions (in the U.S.) have been dealing with for quite some time,” said Daniel Deacon, an associate in the Washington, D.C., office of Conn Maciel Carey LLP. “Temperatures are rising, and you want to have some protocols in place to make sure employees are safe and getting those rest periods.”
Currently, no federal heat standard exists, and California, through its Division of Occupational Safety and Health, is the only state with a permanent heat stress rule in place. That rule calls for heat illness prevention plans, shade structures when temperatures exceed 80 degrees, and rest and recovery periods, among other requirements.
On July 8, Oregon OSHA announced an emergency temporary standard to protect workers from heat stress. The ETS will remain in effect until Jan. 3, 2022, or until it is replaced by a permanent rule, which the agency has been working on since February.
“This extreme hot weather may happen again. That made it necessary to enact emergency requirements to ensure the health and safety of workers,” said Oregon OSHA Administrator Michael Wood in an email. “And we have several active investigations into fatalities that were reported during the time of the extreme heat wave.”
Along with the ETS, Oregon OSHA has created a heat stress emphasis program that includes guidance to inspectors on how to document violations under the emergency heat stress requirements.
On July 9, Washington state’s Department of Labor & Industries filed an emergency outdoor heat exposure rule that outlined steps employers must take during extreme heat to protect outdoor workers from heat-related illnesses and injuries. The department has also filed an official notification for permanent rulemaking.
The Washington regulations, which took effect July 13, require employers to create a written outdoor heat exposure safety program and provide training, shade, adequate drinking water and paid cool-down rest periods that vary based on outdoor temperatures.
"The recent heat wave is a reminder that extreme temperatures can be a real danger in the workplace,” said L&I director Joel Sacks in a statement. “With more hot weather on the way, we're taking action now.”
Several states, including Maryland and Virginia, are working on permanent heat stress standards, and in March U.S. House and Senate Democrats introduced federal heat stress legislation to protect farmworkers.
While the state heat stress standards vary, one of the common challenges for employers under all of them is how to train managers and employees to identify if someone is experiencing a weather-related medical emergency, said Cressinda Schlag, of counsel in the Austin, Texas, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. “How do you sufficiently identify the factors that require emergency medical response treatment, when are things where you can just have them go to an area, have them cool down and reset? It’s largely a judgment call, and employers need to think about how they’re communicating with employees about these issues.”
Ms. Schlag advises employers in areas of the country with hot temperatures to hold weekly talks about heat illness and safety communication and to not underestimate the simplest protocols.
“Even little reminders to employees to remember to drink your water,” she said.
One day after Oregon Gov. Kate Brown directed the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to establish emergency rules to protect workers from extreme heat, the agency followed through.