Regulators, lawmakers push workplace heat standards

As summer approaches, workplace safety agencies and state lawmakers are seeking to formulate standards to protect workers from heat-related dangers on the job.

Rising global temperatures, longer and more frequent heatwaves and increased heat-related workers compensation claims are driving advocates to push for more detailed and uniform standards addressing heat illness and injury in the workplace.

The issue is playing out among states although there is momentum to establish better heat standards on the federal level.

Among states acting to establish or revise heat standards for workers, the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board will hold a public hearing in May on a proposed indoor heat illness prevention standard for the state.

The standard was born out of a 2016 state law that directed the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health to develop heat standards for those working inside. The state already has an outdoor heat standard.

Washington’s Department of Labor & Industries is looking to update heat rules to increase protections for agricultural, construction and other workers exposed to outdoor heat. In March Nevada lawmakers filed legislation that would create both indoor and outdoor heat standards. The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration introduced its indoor and outdoor heat illness prevention standard in 2022.

At the federal level, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced in 2021 that it would begin the rulemaking process to develop workplace rules on heat stress, but nothing has yet been formally adopted.

The heat safety push is tied to rising temperatures, increased heatwaves and a rise in heat-related workers compensation claims, but the issue has been a concern for a while, according to experts.

“We have really bad statistical records on heat stress, heat illness at work,” said Juley Fulcher, worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization. Developing a standard is “a slow process,” she said. “We’ve done whatever we can on the advocacy side to try to speed that along as much as we can.”

According to statistics compiled by Public Citizen, environmental heat is likely responsible for at least 170,000 work-related injuries each year.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show 344 heat-related worker deaths between 2011 and 2019, though workplace safety experts say the fatality rate is likely much higher due to underreporting or misreporting deaths as the result of another cause, such as heart attacks.

Ms. Fulcher said it’s often easier to implement change at the state level.

Kevin O’Sadnick, senior risk control manager for St. Louis-based Safety National Casualty Corp., said a federal standard would encourage more states to move.

With federal rules, “at least you got something there where everybody’s playing by the same rules,” he said, adding that heatwaves in the U.S. are increasing in frequency and duration and should spur action.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, heatwave frequency has increased steadily, from an average of two heatwaves per year during the 1960s to six per year during the 2010s and 2020s.

“Heat stress is a really tough situation to address,” said Thomas Bobick, who chairs the A10.50 committee addressing heat stress management in the construction industry, a joint effort of the American National Standards Institute and the American Society of Safety Professionals.

Part of the difficulty is that the ability of individual workers to handle heat varies, said Mr. Bobick, who retired last year after 33 years with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Workers new to working in hotter conditions, for instance, may have a more severe reaction to the heat than acclimatized workers, he said.

David May, the committee’s co-chair, said that when looking to develop heat standards, regulators and legislators need to study heat-related causes of morbidity and mortality in the workplace.

Both Mr. Bobick and Mr. May said that while acclimatization may help with workplace heat exposure, a general trend in workers experiencing adverse reactions to the heat is likely leading the drive to develop more uniform workplace heat standards.

This article was first published in Business Insurance.

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