A House of Representatives bill would direct the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to adopt a standard to prevent occupational exposure to excessive heat in both indoor and outdoor environments.
However, some observers say it is unnecessary, given that OSHA can issue its own regulations.
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., and Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., on Wednesday introduced the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, which is named for Asunción Valdivia, a farmworker who died after picking grapes for a 10-hour shift in 105-degree heat.
Excessive environmental heat stress killed 783 U.S. workers and seriously injured 69,374 workers from 1992 through 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“While those working in air conditioned offices may not notice, climate change is all too real for the roofer, the warehouse worker, the farmworker and the highway worker who work for eight to 10 or 12 hours a day in record-breaking heat,” said Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., chair of the subcommittee on workforce protections, which conducted a hearing on the bill on Thursday. “According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, this warming trend is likely to only accelerate.”
“Yet OSHA does not have a federal standard that requires the breaks, shade or water that we know can prevent this, and OSHA merely suggests these provisions,” Rep. Chu said during the hearing.
OSHA may object to a congressional mandate to implement a heat stress standard due to a lack of resources, as Congress cut the agency’s standards-making budget by 10% in fiscal year 2017 — “a short-sighted decrease that the Democratic majority is fighting to reverse,” Rep. Adams said.
“Heat exposure is currently regulated under the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970,” said Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., ranking member of the subcommittee. “Employers are already required to take steps to protect employees and provide a safe work environment, and that includes preventing workers from being exposed to heat that results in illness.”
In March, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission sent clear signals that OSHA should adopt a standard to address heat stress risks rather than relying on the general duty clause after vacating a citation issued after the death of a 61-year-old temporary employee from complications of heat stroke.
“Heat stress is an underappreciated workplace hazard,” said Thomas Bernard, a professor in the College of Public Health at the University of South Florida in Tampa, who teaches occupational health and safety with occupational heat stress a primary research focus.
An “enforceable OSHA standard can bring visibility and clarity to the structure and function of an effective heat stress management program,” he said.
But the construction industry is proactively addressing heat exposure, including conducting routine toolbox talks prior to and during the summer months to raise awareness of the issue and reinforce the importance of proper hydration and identifying the symptoms of heat stress and how to prevent it from occurring, said Kevin Cannon, senior director of safety and health services for Arlington, Virginia-based Associated General Contractors of America.
OSHA already conducts a heat stress illness prevention campaign and can cite employers under the general duty clause so a new federal standard and law is “unnecessary and unworkable and impractical,” he said.
But Dr. Ronda McCarthy, Waco, Texas-based national medical director of medical surveillance services for health care company Concentra, said she has “unsuccessfully implored plant health and safety managers to implement simple measures such as worker training, hydration, rest breaks and access to shade and cooling to avoid costly and perilous accidents, injuries and illnesses from excessive heat exposure.”
“In the past 20 years, I have treated too many workers for heat-related illnesses, which are 100% preventable,” she said.
If OSHA does adopt a heat stress standard, it should follow the lead of California, experts say. The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health has had a heat illness prevention regulation in existence since 2006.
“California’s efforts to protect employees from heat illness have been most successful when Cal/OSHA has adopted a collaborative approach, engaging in an open exchange with all stakeholders, including employer stakeholders,” said Bryan Little, director of labor affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation in San Francisco. “The result has been a relatively simple outdoor heat illness standard, nonregulatory guidance designed with significant input from employers and cooperative education programs to help the regulated community understand the enforcement agency’s expectations. Our heat standard has succeeded in preventing heat illness and fatalities because it is relatively simple, limited in scope and general in its requirements, with special requirements for certain industries with special risk factors. Federal OSHA should follow a model that prioritizes simplicity, training and collaboration.”
Congress should not legislate a rule-making process for an agency that already has authority and jurisdiction to issue regulations and should not set an “arbitrary deadline” for a heat stress standard, Mr. Cannon said.
“The rule-making process is intentionally deliberate to allow for meaningful stakeholder input,” he said. “Imposing an arbitrary and compressed deadline could compromise the ability of the regulated community to fully engage in the process and the ability of regulators to do their job in creating the most feasible rule that results in the protection of workers in extreme temperatures. There must be a fair and transparent process in the promulgation of this or any rule that will impact a significant percentage of workplaces.”