Hot Workplace? OSHA Would Like to Fix That…

Feeling the heat? You are not alone. Excessive heat is a serious health problem in the US and growing. Heat kills more people each year than hurricanes, floods and tornadoes combined, according to the National Weather Service.

In 2021, President Biden called for worker protections with an initiative led by OSHA. Since April 2022, OSHA, which has nearly 2,000 inspectors, has conducted about 5,000 inspections related to heat exposure. That resulted in 54 citations to employers for heat-related violations of the agency’s general duty clause, which requires companies to maintain workplaces free of hazards. Out of those 54 citations, a dozen were issued after heat-related hospitalizations and 25 after heat-related deaths. The Biden administration is now pushing for the DOL, which oversees OSHA, to set clear standards for heat index thresholds for workplaces. A team of roughly 30 people at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is expected to propose a new rule that would require employers to protect an estimated 50 million people exposed to high temperatures while they work. They include farm laborers and construction workers, but also people who sort packages in warehouses, clean airplane cabins and cook in commercial kitchens.

Heat takes a toll on productivity: in 2021, more than 2.5 billion hours of labor were lost to to heat exposure. Only five states have heat related labor protections at this point (CA, CO, MN, OR, WA) but more states may act as this crisis continues.

The reality is heat and its impact on workers is bound up in debate about climate change. While the data points to more heat and more deaths, politicians are loathe to act on it. Business groups, including the US Chamber of Commerce, worry that a heat index would be unworkable. The federal government does not have the infrastructure to actually investigate and act on dangerous, hot workplaces either.

The future of the federal government to regulate excessive heat at work is murky. Any changes would probably come at the state and local level. In the meantime, smart employers will continue to figure out ways to keep their workers cool and safe, from installing shade and water stations to adopting schedules based on cooler times of the day.

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