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Worker safety advocates and attorneys representing employers have mixed reactions to recently announced federal heat safety measures for workers.
Some say employers are already handling the issue; others say more needs to be done.
President Joe Biden said July 27 that his administration is implementing measures designed to protect the U.S. workforce from extreme heat. The announcement came amid record-breaking temperatures in some parts of the country.
The measures include increased Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspections in industries in which workers are exposed to extreme heat – such as agriculture, firefighting and construction – and the adoption of federal heat protections. The president also instructed the Department of Labor to issue its first-ever Hazard Alert for heat, which affirms that workers have heat-related protections under federal law.
Ed Pratt, director of risk services for St. Louis-based specialty insurer Safety National Casualty Corp., said employers are already taking steps to protect workers against heat and that to do otherwise would be bad for business.
“There’s no question [employers] recognize the exposure,” he said. “They haven’t been ignoring this. … What they continue to do is monitor their employees and make things available to their employees.”
Many employers address heat by installing hydration stations, emphasizing acclimatization and warning workers of the dangers of prolonged heat exposure, Mr. Pratt said.
Beeta Lashkari, an attorney with Washington
-based Conn Maciel Carey LLP, which represents employers, said, “Most of our clients do have a heat illness prevention program already in place, so this is sort of nothing new to the employer community.”
Further efforts to address heat issues at the federal level are ongoing.
OSHA Assistant Secretary Doug Parker said in a statement that a heat illness prevention standard continues to be a top priority for the administration.
“As we work toward a final rule on heat illness prevention, we’re also enhancing our enforcement compliance efforts to make sure employers and workers understand the dangers of heat illness and how to prevent it,” he said.
Ms. Lashkari said her clients advocate for a standard that is “performance-oriented and flexible.”
“We don’t want a standard to come out that’s so prescriptive that it makes all our clients’ programs, which have been really effective, go out the window,” she said.
Some say the targeted heat-enforcement measures Mr. Biden announced don’t go far enough.
“It’s important … that the president recognizes there’s an urgent issue,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. “In some ways there’s a risk of this announcement creating some confusion about what’s needed. What’s really needed is a standard, and fast.”
Ms. Goldstein-Gelb called on Congress to pass an interim heat standard that could go into effect immediately instead of waiting out the OSHA rulemaking process.
“Standards that OSHA creates take way too long,” she said.
Scott DeBow, principal for health, safety and environmental for Avetta LLC, a Houston-based supply chain risk management company, said the presidential action on workplace heat was warranted.
“In light of the number of increasing fatalities over the past few years, I think that was appropriate, and we need to draw attention to that,” he said. “We can’t forget at the end of the day that we’re talking about someone’s family member.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 344 workers died between 2011 and 2019 from environmental heat exposure, although some workplace safety experts say the death toll is likely higher due to underreporting or misreporting, such as when deaths are attributed to a medical condition such as a heart attack.
Mr. DeBow said employers must provide training and resources to help workers properly deal with factors leading to heat illness.
“We really know what we need to do to be able to anticipate the type of things that employees need to work safely, and we need to make sure we are consistently driving those risk-based approaches,” he said.