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OSHA Heat Standard Aimed at Indoor Workers

July 28, 2021
Will impact manufacturers, warehouses and distribution centers.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is working on a new heat standard to target indoor workers without climate-controlled environments, including those who toil in manufacturing, warehouses and distribution centers that fall under that definition.

Two years ago, the public interest group Public Citizen and Democrat legislators asked that such a rule be promulgated by OSHA. Up until now, the agency has pursued charges against employers for heat-related injuries and illnesses among workers primarily in outdoor environments. Even then, it has done so under the General Duty clause rather than any specific heat-related standard.

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 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 heat waves 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 that uses 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 (PPE), to perspire heavily. In this case, the new standard may require cooler temperatures.

May Follow NIOSH Criteria

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) already has developed criteria for a possible federal standard for occupational exposure to heat and hot environments, specifically covering recommended engineering and administrative controls and PPE.

The NIOSH recommended standards include:

• Reducing physical demands of the work by using powered assistance for heavy tasks.

• Helping workers acclimate to high temperatures by gradually increasing exposure to hot conditions over 7–14 days.

• Scheduling new workers for no more than 20% of the usual duration of work in a hot environment on the first day with no more than a 20% increase each day.

• Encouraging water intake at frequent intervals to prevent dehydration (one cup every 15–20 minutes).

• Providing a shaded and/or air-conditioned space nearby.

• Monitoring workers for complicating conditions such as alcohol ingestion, diarrhea and low-grade infections.

• Cooled air, cooled fluid or ice-cooled clothing, and reflective clothing or aprons for workers in hot industrial environments.

Currently, OSHA recommends that employers set thermostats between 68◦ F and 78◦ F. 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.

May Emulate State Rules

The federal rule also could emulate state standards in some very specific ways. For example, Minnesota’s indoor heat standard requires employers to measure heat using the “wet-bulb globe temperature” (WGBT) index, which is calculated by air temperature, air speed, humidity and radiation.

Under the Minnesota standard, permissible heat levels vary by three levels of exertion. “Heavy work” is defined as exerting 350 or more kcal/hr (kilocalories per hour), which can include heavy lifting and pushing, and shovel work. In these situations, the permissible heat level cannot exceed 77◦ F.

“Moderate work” is defined as exerting 200 to 350 kcal/hr, which can include moderate lifting and pushing and its permissible heat level is 80◦ F. For “light work”—defined as exerting 200 kcal/hr, which can include sitting or standing performing light hand or arm work—the permissible heat level is 86◦ F.

As a result, in Minnesota a facility must calculate WGBT and constantly monitor and adjust conditions according to the highest level of exertion by any workers in the working environment.

“Some manufacturers might find this level of calculation unworkable because of varying or changing production schedules and varying outdoor heat conditions, particularly during heat waves,” Malveaux says.

Recently, the states of Oregon and Washington have adopted rules on workplace heat danger while in the midst of a western heat wave that has broken all records this summer.

On July 8, Oregon announced a 180-day emergency rule protecting workers from both indoor and outdoor heat. The requirements expand worker access to shade and cool water and include regular cool-down breaks, training, communication, emergency planning as well as other measures.

It also uses a tiered system with requirements starting up once the heat index is at 80 degrees and increasing when the heat index reaches 90. This temporary standard likely will be the basis of a permanent one the state is expected to adopt in the fall.

On July 9, Washington State unveiled an emergency rule aimed at protecting workers exposed to extreme heat, those who work in agriculture, construction and other outdoor industries.

The emergency rules require that employees be allowed and encouraged to take preventive cool-down rest breaks when they feel they need to protect themselves from overheating. These breaks must be paid unless taken during a meal period.

Employees must be provided with a sufficient quantity of drinking water that is “suitably cool.”

Training must include procedures used by the employer to provide employees with the means to reduce body temperature for the mandated preventive cool-down rest period.

The rules also apply additional requirements for days of extreme high heat, defined as when temperatures are at or exceed 100◦ F. These include a preventive cool-down rest period of at least 10 minutes every two hours. The rules also deal with providing shade and using other methods to cool down workers.        

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