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OSHA proposal aims to protect workers from extreme heat

Heat is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S., and there is no federal standard to protect employees from excessive heat.
A jet takes flight from Sky Harbor International Airport as the sun sets over Phoenix
Posted at 11:24 AM, Jul 03, 2024

Blistering heat in June broke records in various parts of the country, and as summers get hotter and longer, the White House laid out a new proposal that would set a nationwide federal heat standard to address excessive heat in the workplace.

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden announced the new rule to protect outdoor workers. If it’s adopted it would mark the nation’s first federal safety standard to address excessive heat in workplaces, and would impact roughly 36 million employees in indoor and outdoor settings.

Patience Titcombe, the owner and head chef of Lasgidi Cafe, an award-winning food truck in Phoenix, said triple-digit heat forced her to close her food truck business for the summer.

“I'd say the last couple of weeks of this season, I had maybe two or three incidents where I actually almost fainted due to the heat,” Titcombe said.

Heat is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S., and there is no federal standard to protect employees from excessive heat. Five states have implemented laws to protect workers, but in Texas and Florida the governors have passed laws that prevent local governments from requiring heat protections for employees.

This week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a notice of proposed rulemaking, with two heat-indextriggers that would supersede state laws.

The OSHA proposal would require employers to develop and implement a worksite injury and illness prevention plan to help control heat hazards in areas impacted by excessive heat.

The rule would also require the evaluation of heat risks and the identification of heat hazards in both indoor and outdoor settings, and would require drinking water, rest breaks, and a plan to protect new or returning employees not accustomed to working in extreme heat.

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The rule set forth has two triggers. When temperatures hit an 80-degree heat index or above, the recommended plan of action would include the following:

  • Cool drinking water
  • Breaks in cool areas
  • Acclimatized employees
  • Paid rest breaks if needed to prevent overheating
  • Regular and effective two-way communication

When temperatures reach a 90-degree heat index or above, recommendations include:

  • Mandatory rest breaks of 15 minutes at least every two hours
  • Observations for signs or symptoms of heat-related illness
  • A reminder to employees of the heat illness prevention plan
  • Warning signs in indoor and outdoor working areas where temperatures regularly exceed 120 degrees

“This new rule will substantially reduce heat injuries, illnesses and deaths for over 36 million workers to whom it will apply, from farm workers to construction workers, postal workers, manufacturing workers, and so much more,” President Biden said.
Between 2011 and 2022, 479 U.S. workers died from exposure to environmental heat, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“So we know it's going up,” Center for American Progress director of public health policy Jill Rosenthal said. “We also know it's undercounted and that it's going to continue to be an increasing problem as heat continues to rise.”

In June, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tracked 1,355 new heat records.

“Ignoring climate change is deadly and dangerous and irresponsible,” President Biden said.

Back in February, Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes joined 10 other attorneys general in calling on OSHA to move with urgency to implement a nationwide emergency heat standard.

OSHA is encouraging the public to submit written comments to the Federal Register, a public hearing will then be held. It’s unclear how long it will take before a decision is made on whether the proposal will be adopted.