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Heat Stress: OSHA Regulations

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 2127 in a summer of record-breaking heat. Among other things, the so-called Death Star Act passed in 2023 bans municipal legislatures in the Lone Star State from mandating water and rest breaks that conflict with state regulations. In Texas, only private companies are required to follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards on workplace safety. State and local government workers in Texas aren't covered by federal OSHA standards.

Because of the outcry over Texas House Bill 2127, the U.S. Department of Labor under President Joe Biden has begun working on legislation that would create a national hot weather standard. As heat waves continue, businesses are under scrutiny for how they treat their workers, no matter what the rules say.

OSHA and State Agencies

OSHA does not have specific regulations for environmental heat exposure. It defers to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). NIOSH has released recommendations for occupational standards and risk factors for a number of criteria, including:

  • Environmental factors, such as air temperature, relative humidity, air movement, and amount of direct sunlight
  • Work environment, such as radiant heat sources, personal protective equipment, required clothing, and the location of the work site
  • The worker's physical activity, medical condition, work acclimatization, age, and metabolic heat levels

OSHA and NIOSH alike can only provide guidelines because of each state's different outdoor work conditions. Instead, the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires employers to give workers a workspace "free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees." This includes allowing reasonable water breaks in excessive heat conditions and prompt medical care for heat emergencies.

State Prevention Programs

Twenty-two states have adopted OSHA-approved plans that cover all state and private employers. These state plans mirror the OSHA plans and may be stricter than OSHA requires. Seven states have their own safety plans for state and local government workers. OSHA covers private and federal workers. The state plans are available on the main OSHA website.

Failing to manage heat hazards can result in citations and fines from both the state and federal OSHA departments.

What Are Heat-Related Emergencies?

A heat-related emergency, also known as heat stress or heat illness, is the body's response to extreme heat. The human body can only tolerate high temperatures for a short period of time. Then it begins a process of attempting to cool off before shutting down. Heat illness prevention is simple and consists of allowing enough water breaks and rest periods in cool or shaded areas. Workers must receive immediate first aid if they suffer heat injuries.

Any outdoor workers in hot environments are at risk for heat stress. Workers most at risk include:

  • Construction workers
  • Agricultural and landscape workers
  • Road workers
  • Novice workers, older workers, and those with known health conditions such as heart ailments or diabetes

Managing Heat-Related Emergencies

Business owners and job-site supervisors can reduce the number of heat-related injuries by allowing workers to take rest breaks and letting workers carry drinking water on the job site. Business owners should also consider limiting outdoor work during high heat conditions.

Everyone is familiar with the news reports of daily temperatures. These are "dry bulb" temperatures. More important are the "wet bulb" globe temperatures, taken with a damp cloth wrapped around the bulb of a thermometer. This method helps to determine how cool air can become via water evaporation. That, in turn, indicates how cool human skin can get through the evaporation of sweat. Above about 95 degrees Fahrenheit, sweat cannot evaporate, and humans can no longer cool themselves without external means.

Types of Heat-Related Emergencies

When a person's core temperature rises above 99 degrees Fahrenheit, their body tries to shut down so it can cool itself. This is when heat illnesses begin. Recognizing the early signs of heat illness can help prevent it from advancing to dangerous illness and death.

  • Heat cramps are painful muscle spasms caused by salt and electrolyte imbalance due to excessive sweating. You should move a victim of heat cramps to a cool place and give them water or a sports drink (not an energy drink). Heat cramps may progress to heat exhaustion.
  • Heat exhaustion is caused by overheating and pooling of the blood in the extremities as the body attempts to cool itself. It may include fainting, weakness, nausea, shortness of breath, and increased heart rate. Treat heat exhaustion by getting the victim into a cool place, loosening their clothing, and giving them water or juice (not energy drinks or caffeine). A doctor should see victims who are young, elderly, or have a medical condition.
  • Heat stroke is a medical emergency. It occurs when the body's heat-regulating mechanisms shut down. The victim's skin becomes red, hot, and dry. Their body temperature may soar above 107 degrees. Unconsciousness and death may quickly follow. There is no on-site treatment for heat stroke. Call 911 immediately, or transport the victim to a hospital.

Heat-related illnesses lead to deaths each summer. Victims are often uninitiated hikers, construction workers, and older adults. Ensuring workers have access to potable water can reduce these fatalities. It also improves workers' job performance.

OSHA Guidelines for High Heat Conditions

If your state has separate heat stress guidelines, you should know and follow them. Federal OSHA guidelines are only intended as a baseline for businesses to work from. These guidelines can help small businesses start their own emergency response plans:

  • Permit workers to drink water at all times (the CDC recommends at least one pint per hour)
  • Create a work schedule that allows breaks limiting exposure during high heat index periods; provide air conditioning, roofing, or fans during breaks
  • Develop a workplace training program to recognize the signs and symptoms of heat-related illness; have an emergency response plan for illnesses and injuries in the work area
  • Screen employees for heat-related health conditions
  • Allow the immediate administration of first aid to workers displaying symptoms of heat illness

When to Hire a Lawyer for Heat Stress Issues

Getting expert legal advice regarding heat stress lawsuits can be crucial to your business. Contact an employment lawyer in your area for a free or low-cost consultation.

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