If your indoor facility isn’t temperature controlled, you could end up a target of OSHA under a new rule it is developing to combat heat injuries and illnesses in indoor facilities.
Two years ago, Public Citizen and Democrat legislators asked OSHA to promulgate the rule. Currently, the agency pursues charges against employers for workers’ heat-related injuries and illnesses primarily in outdoor environments. Even then, enforcement was carried out under the General Duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act rather than under a specific heat-related rule designed for that purpose.
Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Jim Frederick announced in June that the agency intends to initiate a rulemaking process, starting with a public request for information.
He tied the proceeding to climate change policy by pointing out that 18 of the last 19 years were the hottest on record and the intensity of recent heatwaves have put many employees at increased risk, points out attorney Courtney M. Malveaux of the law firm of Jackson Lewis.
Frederick said at the time of his announcement that he hopes the agency will have “some very, very good, very thorough stakeholder engagement and involvement” while it develops the rule. “We hope that our request for information is very thoroughly responded to by as many stakeholders as possible.”
The proposed standard is in its preliminary stages and its contents are not yet clear, Malveaux stresses. However, he believes that the requirements contained in standards applied by regulators in some states offer clues about what an OSHA rule eventually will look like.
For example, the OSHA standard could require break times and order employers to monitor employee acclimatization, as well as temperatures and humidity levels in workplaces.
“Such provisions could effectively require costly changes in manufacturing worksites that do not have air conditioning and have a local source of heat, such as a furnace or an oven,” he says.
Heat levels also can be affected by the presence of many workers at a site, especially if they are engaged in physically exerting tasks, Malveaux suggests.
He cites the example of a factory with employees melting substances like metal or glass would use machinery that can become extremely hot and affect the surrounding environment, regardless of outdoor temperatures.
Another example: a factory with a furnace operating over 500 degrees causing nearby employees, who may be in heavy personal protective equipment, to perspire heavily. In this case, the new standard may require cooler temperatures.
Currently, OSHA recommends that employers set thermostats between 68 degrees and 78 degrees Fahrenheit. OSHA also offers guidance on “Working In Outdoor and Indoor Heat Environments,” where it suggests that employers:
• Provide workers with water and rest.
• Allow new or returning workers to gradually increase workloads and take more frequent breaks as they acclimatize or build a tolerance for working in the heat.
• Plan for emergencies and train workers on prevention.
• Monitor workers for signs of illness.
OSHA also may choose to borrow from already-written state standards in place in California and Minnesota, which can be quite complicated and impose time-consuming temperature monitoring and a menu of mitigation requirements.
Recently, in response to a record-breaking heatwave in the Northwest, the states of Oregon and Washington also have adopted stricter requirements for employers.