Are you prepared for a potential Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspection focused on heat-related illnesses and have you considered your approach to meeting the requirements of a potential new federal heat stress standard?
While many heat hazards may be considered minor and reversible, this perception often leads employers and employees to underestimate their significance. Overheating and neglecting to acclimate to rising temperatures are not as harmless as they appear. In the absence of adequate control measures, these conditions can have severe consequences, including fatalities.
According to OSHA, most fatalities due to hot weather (50 to 70%) occur on the first days of working in a hot environment. With temperatures on the rise due the warmer season and climate change, this is the right time to make sure all your employees can work safely when the heat is turned up.
What Does OSHA Say About Heat and Hydration?
Until recently, OSHA gave little direction in regard to heat-related hazards. However, the OSHA National News Release of September 20, 2021 signaled that this was about to change, mandating OSHA Area Directors to:
- “Prioritize inspections of heat-related complaints, referrals and employer-reported illnesses and initiate an onsite investigation where possible.
- Instruct compliance safety and health officers, during their travels to job sites, to conduct an intervention (providing the agency's heat poster/wallet card, discuss the importance of easy access to cool water, cooling areas and acclimatization) or opening an inspection when they observe employees performing strenuous work in hot conditions.
- Expand the scope of other inspections to address heat-related hazards where worksite conditions or other evidence indicates these hazards may be present.”
This press release provided the legal framework and foundation for what soon became known as the OSHA Directive CPL 03-00-024, National Emphasis Program – Outdoor and Indoor Heat-Related Hazards. The directive came into effect on April 8, 2022, and will remain in effect for three years, unless canceled or extended.
The directive applies to both indoor and outdoor hot environments and includes general industry, maritime, construction, and agriculture. Its purpose is to provide an enforcing mechanism for OSHA by allowing it to proactively inspect worksites for heat-related hazards. However, the approach also provides a framework for employers to take proactive steps to prevent illness and death during high heat conditions.
(Find out How OSHA's NEP for Heat Hazards Affects Your Safety Program)
There are several reasons why OSHA felt compelled to introduce their National Emphasis Program.
The General Duty Clause Lacks Direction
OSHA’s General Duty Clause states that:
“Each employer shall furnish to each of his employee's employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.“
As heat stress is a recognized and common occupational hazard, it follows that employers must provide a workplace where heat-related hazards are controlled.
But the clause does not specify which industries should be subject to this program, has no inspection guidelines, descriptions of heat-related violations, or a description of heat-related illnesses and their symptoms. Nor does it provide direction regarding controls for heat-related hazards, such as hydration.
The NEP fills these voids and provides comprehensive information to law enforcement as well as employers.
(Learn about the 6 Key Signs of Dehydration Workers Should Know)
Since heat is a common and often underestimated occupational hazard, many heat exposure injuries and fatalities go unreported.
According to the OSHA National News Release of September 20, 2021, even under these underreporting conditions, 43 workers have died due to heat illness in 2019, while 2410 other suffered injuries and illnesses serious enough to be included in OSHA’s statistics. OSHA also states that 3,500 heat related injuries are recorded each year.
Most heat-related injuries and fatalities occur as a result of outdoor work. And while ambient heat and physical overexertion always had the potential to cause harm and fatalities, climate change adds another layer of complexity. As OSHA notes, 18 of the last 19 summers were the hottest on record. And this trend is bound to continue and accelerate, so heat risks will only increase over time.
Should Employers Have a Hydration Plan?
Depending on the work environment and task at hand, higher level controls such as elimination or engineering controls can be successfully implemented. However, the reality is that in these controls are not feasible in many scenarios and we have to incorporate lower level controls instead.
OSHA stipulates some employer responsibilities, such as creating a Heat Illness Prevention Plan, which should consist of six sections, including “Provide Water, Rest, Shade”
The first two paragraphs of that section state that:
“Employers should provide cool water for workers to drink. Proper hydration is essential to prevent heat-related illness. For those working two hours or more, also provide access to additional fluids that contain electrolytes.
For short jobs, cool potable water is sufficient. Workers should be encouraged to drink at least one cup (8 ounces) of water every 20 minutes while working in the heat, not just if they are thirsty.“
This clearly establishes that it is the employer’s duty to provide water or electrolyte drinks, and even specifies the amount they must supply (at least 1 cup of water for every 20 minutes of work).
Contrary to common beliefs, the direction clearly spells out that water might not be enough. Workers who carry out more physically demanding tasks, or tasks longer than two hours in a hot environment, should be provided with electrolyte drinks. Additional information is provided by both CDC and OSHA in their communication posters.
(Learn more about Electrolytes: What They Are and Why They Matter for On-the-Job Hydration)
While not directly stipulated, it follows that in order to satisfy these conditions organizations should have a hydration plan.
This plan should establish:
- How many employees are exposed to heat hazards
- The length of time they will be working in a hot environment
- How much fluid will they need during that time
- What type of fluid they will need (water, electrolyte drinks, or both)
- How access to water and electrolytes will be ensured
- Consider that one of the requirements is that the water should be cool. According to CDC/NIOSH, the water should have a temperature of 15°C (59°F) or less. Providing bottled water without any means to keep it cool won't be sufficient.
- CDC/NIOSH also state that, for sanitary reasons, individual access to water or other beverages should be provided. Stock individual bottles rather than offering communal ones. If the fluids are in large, shared containers, supply individual drinking cups.
- Besides hydration, water might also be used to cool down workers (through immersion or wet towels, for instance), so be sure to give access to more water than is needed for drinking.
The end goal of the plan should be to ensure that:
- All workers exposed to heat hazards have access to the prescribed hydration
- Workers are drinking the prescribed quantities of fluid
Keep in mind that some workers might not feel thirsty even after working in the heat. Given this, mandating hydration breaks might be a good idea.
As the number of hot days is expected to rise, it follows that worker exposure to hot weather will also increase. While the NEP for heat illnesses and injuries has yet to become a federal requirement, it is highly recommended that employers promptly implement written safety procedures and training programs that effectively address heat-related job site issues.
It is important to note that certain states have already implemented their own laws governing occupational heat exposure, which may go beyond federal regulations. Furthermore, various states have hazard-avoidance regulations that also go beyond the requirements set by OSHA. Employers must familiarize themselves with both OSHA regulations as well as any respective state statutes pertaining to heat-related illnesses and injuries in the workplace. By doing so, they can safeguard lives as well as help avoid substantial fines for their companies.
Developing a heat hazard plan that included proper hydration isn’t just a wise decision – it’s an essential responsibility.