US OSHA proposes rule to protect workers from extreme heat

It’s not even two weeks into the start of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, but the US is already preparing managers and their workers for high temperatures this season, as the country’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) just released a new rule proposal aimed at protecting outdoor and indoor workers from extreme heat.

Worker drinks water (Image: Adobe Stock) A worker drinks water on-site. (Image: Adobe Stock)

According to OSHA, the proposed rule would require employers to develop injury and illness prevention plans to mitigate heat hazards. The rule would also force employers to evaluate heat risks and implement requirements for drinking water, rest breaks, and control of indoor heat when temperatures increase.

If passed, the ordinance would also mandate the employers implement protections for new or returning workers unaccustomed to working in high-heat conditions.

Employers will also need to comply with training requirements regarding heat in addition to establishing procedures for identifying heat illness and responding to its symptoms.

Douglas L. Parker, OSHA’s assistant secretary, said, “Workers all over the country are passing out, suffering heat stroke, and dying from heat exposure from just doing their jobs. Today’s proposal is an important next step in the process to receive public input to craft a ‘win-win’ final rule that protects workers while being practical and workable for employers.”

New OSHA rule announcement coincides with Supreme Court action

The announcement of the proposed rule came the same day the US Supreme Court elected not to hear an argument challenging the agency’s authority to issue fines.

In that case, an Ohio-based construction contractor argued a fine – levied by OSHA – represented unconstitutionally delegated powers from Congress.

If the court had agreed with the challenge, OSHA’s ability to enforce its safety rules would have, ultimately, become non-existent. The ramifications for all US agencies, had the Supreme Court agreed with the challenge, would have been wide-ranging and immense, as well.

By turning away the argument, OSHA’s power as a regulatory authority remains the same, though future challenges would not be unprecedented.

Flexibility ‘imperative for heat protections’

Reacting to the news of OSHA’s proposed rule on heat injury and illness prevention, Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) said it was working to review and analyse the more than 1,000 pages but warned that employers needed flexibility within any protections put in place to enable them to respond to the changing demands of construction work.

Greg Sizemore, ABC vice president of health, safety, environment and workforce development, said, “ABC continues to believe employers should equip their employees and leadership teams to develop their own safety plans, unique to their jobsites, and we strongly encourage review of all applicable OSHA rules and guidelines.

“We also provide tools to employers so that they can equip and empower supervisors to recognize the signs and symptoms of heat illness as well as provide necessary rest, water and shade that is dependent on local conditions. Our members work to ensure that jobsites are safe and implement the most appropriate practices for working in extreme heat conditions that focus on the individual worker, based on CDC recommendations.

“However, those protections must be flexible in response to the fluid nature of the construction environment, and unfortunately some of the unworkable provisions in the proposed rule could weaken contractor efforts to prevent heat stress for workers.”

Meanwhile, Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) welcomed the proposed rule as a “starting point” but warned that the final rule should avoid a “one size fits all” approach that could do more to “hamstring” companies’ attempts to protect workers.

AGC chief executive officer Jeffrey D. Shoaf said, “The proposed new federal heat safety rule codifies many of the heat safety practices the construction industry already uses to protect workers. Those measures, which broadly fall into the categories of water, rest, shade and training, were crafted by construction firms as part of their general duty obligations to protect workers and keep them healthy.

“It is disappointing, however, that federal officials have not addressed the disparate impacts of heat in various parts of the country. In short, the impacts on worker safety of a 90-degree day in Mississippi are different than a 90-degree day in Alaska. The final version of the rule should take into account regional differences in weather patterns.

“The proposal also lacks any emphasis on the role workers must play to protect themselves from the heat. Heat safety does not begin at the job site and the rule should include measures designed to reinforce the role workers play in protecting themselves. These measures include self-hydrating, understanding how common health conditions and medications contribute to heat stress and avoiding the excessive consumption of drinks containing caffeine and alcohol during periods of extreme heat. All of which the agency is aware.”

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