If You Can’t Stand the Heat – Go Somewhere and Cool Off!

Office worker struggling with warm weather

More than 40 million people were under heat alerts in the South and Southwest this week, with heat indices in places like San Antonio, Texas, expected to reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit and 30 U.S. localities on alert for record heat.

Yes, summertime means heat. But usually not this hot, or for this long. Climate.gov reports that the Earth’s temperature has increased about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880.  This has resulted in the “new normal” of hotter workplaces, where employees who work outdoors or inside hot environments – and their managers -- must increase awareness of the risk for heat-related illnesses – and take action to protect themselves.

Heat stress occurs when the body is unable to cool itself and is caused by many factors. These include dehydration, direct sun exposure with no shade for long periods, prolonged exposure to extreme job environments such as service departments with no air conditioning or construction sites that are unsheltered, and job sites with limited air movement that require physical exertion or use of bulky protective clothing or equipment. Workers in poor physical condition or with ongoing health problems, those who take certain medications or who drink alcohol excessively, and workers who lack previous exposure to hot workplaces are all at greater risk of heat related illness – and potentially – injury.

OSHA recognized this increased exposure to higher temperatures in the workplace when reporting an average of 35 deaths and 2700 lost workdays each year from 2015 to 2019.  With these statistics in mind, in 2022 OSHA implemented a National Emphasis Program (NEP) to ensure employees in targeted, high-hazard industries are protected from heat-related hazards, both indoors and outdoors, that may lead to serious illnesses, injuries, or death.  The NEP requires OSHA jurisdictions to conduct programmed inspections on days when the National Weather Service (NWS) has announced a heat warning or advisory.  In addition, during non-heat related inspections the OSHA Officers should inquire about whether the employer has hazard control practices for heat priority days that are expected to be 80 o F, or hotter.

As part of this increased emphasis on heat in the workplace, OSHA expects employers to have multiple controls in place at businesses where the NWS has forecast heat warnings or advisories.  Requirements include a hazard assessment by the Heat Stress Prevention Plan administrator; methods to conduct heat stress monitoring; engineering controls; work practices; work breaks and shade; scheduled fluid replacement; and acclimatization.

A variety of resources for controlling risk factors related to heat can be found at OSHA’s webpage dedicated to Heat.  In addition, OSHA has a sample Heat Illness Prevention Plan that is comprehensive and provides an excellent starting point for assisting employers with implementing their own plan.  Lastly, OSHA and NIOSH have teamed up on the OSHA-NIOSH Heat Safety Tool App and application that provide real-time heat index and hourly forecasts specific to a location.

Heat-related illness can occur during any season if conditions are right, not only in summer or during heat waves.  Management must consider all factors when determining if an employee can safely work when a heat hazard is present, especially as we enter the “new normal” of a hotter planet.