Sincerely Stefanie: The Heat is On

Aug. 6, 2019
It’s time for OSHA to develop a heat illness prevention standard before more workers are harmed.

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night…” begins the creed of the United States Postal Service, but this socially-accepted ideology extends to nearly every American workplace, and workers are suffering from the expectations associated with it.

From restaurants to landscapers to construction workers, summer months can be particularly grueling for workers without access to adequate rest periods, shade or water. What boggles my mind is that there are no regulations at the federal level to protect both indoor and outdoor workers from heat exposure.

State-run Cal/OSHA’s Heat Illness Prevention standard (T8 CCR 3395) states employers are required to establish, implement and maintain a plan with the following minimum elements:

1.    Procedures for providing sufficient water
2.    Procedures for providing access to shade
3.    High-heat procedures
4.    Emergency response procedures
5.    Acclimatization methods and procedures.

On its website, the agency provides guidance about preventing and responding to heat illness including effective communication, effective elements of program as well as best practices to remain in compliance while protecting workers.

While California has been ahead of its time in introducing legislation to protect workers, federal OSHA has yet to produce a standard, instead allowing heat illness to fall under the all-encompassing General Duty Clause.  

OSHA opted instead to launch a Heat Illness Prevention campaign in 2011. This education campaign has been a seemingly half-baked attempt at protecting workers from being exposed to extreme conditions. 

The failure of this can be found throughout many workplaces; take the refusal of United Postal Service (UPS) to provide air-conditioned vehicles for its drivers as an example.

Jim Klenk, a UPS worker with 15 years of experience, almost died from kidney failure due to heat exposure on the job.  News reports detail how temperatures in August 2016 reached 90 degrees. The temperature in the cargo area of his truck routinely reached triple digits.

Klenk continued to work through the hazardous conditions, worried that he would look bad to his employer if he called off sick. After completing his shift, which was finished with numerous bouts of vomiting, he went home. The next day Klenk showed up for work, but he felt ill and drove to the emergency room where he was diagnosed with heat stroke.

Shortly thereafter, Klenk’s wife Theresa launched an online petition to require UPS to install air conditioning units in their cargo trucks.

 “In all but one state, UPS does not provide air conditioning for their drivers—even in the blistering summer heat. Join me in demanding that UPS keep their employees safe by adding AC to their delivery trucks,” Theresa says in her petition, “Drivers like my husband are at incredibly high risk during summer months, when temperatures in their trucks can climb to 180 degrees. As a result, they can face dehydration and heat stroke, which can have life-threatening consequences.”

The public petition has attracted more than 500,000 supporters, some of whom told similar stories of outdoor delivery drivers suffering the detrimental effects of heat exposure.

“A mail deliverer died of heatstroke in my neighborhood a few days ago, when the temperature was over 110 degrees. No mail or package matters more than a person’s life,” said Madeline Taylor of Woodland Hills, Calif., who signed the petition.

For workers across the country who complete physically-intensive tasks in sweltering conditions, a glimmer of hope has arrived. California Rep. Judy Chu and Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva are spearheading the Asuncion Valdivia Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, a bill introduced in July that would require OSHA to develop a heat stress standard. 

 “Heat stress-related deaths are 100% preventable, which is what makes stories like that of Asuncion Valdivia, who died after working ten hours in 105-degree weather without a break, so tragic,” Rep. Chu said in a public statement. 

If passed, OSHA would have two years to write and propose a heat illness standard for both indoor and outdoor workers. A final version would be required to be submitted 18 months after the first iteration.

“Every day, workers around the country, whether on a farm or in a warehouse, work in 100-degree temperatures or more just to feed their own families and the country,” Chu said.  “But that exposure to high heat puts workers at risk of heat stroke or heat exhaustion. Even in just a single eight- to ten-hour shift, a worker can fall into a coma and die.
As written, the Asuncion Valdivia Illness and Fatality Prevention Act states workers in high heat environments would be required to have paid breaks in cool spaces, access to water and limitations on how long they can be exposed to heat.

It’s alarming that companies such as UPS use excuses such as drivers frequently opening doors as a reason to not install air conditioning or provisions for protecting its workers. Although the company has a written heat prevention program, it focuses on hydration and extra rest before, not during, extreme heat conditions, according to a CBS17 report.

It’s time for OSHA to step up and develop a legally-enforceable standard before more workers such as Jim Klenk and Asuncion Valdivia make the news, hospitals and morgue as a result of alleged employer negligence just because they needed to provide for their families.

About the Author

Stefanie Valentic

Stefanie Valentic was formerly managing editor of EHS Today, and is currently editorial director of Waste360.

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