As summer approaches, workplace safety agencies and state lawmakers are trying to formulate standards to protect workers from heat-related hazards on the job.
Rising global temperatures, longer and more frequent heat waves, and increased compensation claims for heat-related workers are driving advocates to push for more detailed and uniform standards for managing workplace heat illnesses and injuries.
The issue is playing out among states even as there is momentum to establish better heating standards at 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 who work indoors. The state already has an outdoor heating standard.
Washington’s Department of Labor & Industries wants to update heat regulations to increase protection for agricultural, construction and other workers exposed to outdoor heat. In March, Nevada lawmakers filed legislation that would create heating standards for both indoors and outdoors. The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration introduced its 2022 Indoor and Outdoor Heat Illness Prevention Standard.
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.
Heat safety is linked to rising temperatures, increased heat waves and an increase in heat-related compensation claims, but the issue has been a concern for some time, according to experts.
“We have really poor statistical data on heat stress, heat illness on the job,” said Juley Fulcher, worker safety advocate for Public Citizen, a Washington, DC-based advocacy organization. Developing a standard is “a slow process,” she said. “We’ve done everything we can on the impact side to try to speed it up 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.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows 344 heat-related worker deaths between 2011 and 2019, although workplace safety experts say the death rate is likely much higher due to underreporting or misreporting of deaths as a result of another cause, such as heart attack.
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 have something there where everyone is playing by the same rules,” he said, adding that heat waves in the U.S. are increasing in frequency and duration and should spur action.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the frequency of heat waves has increased steadily, from an average of two heat waves per year in the 1960s to six per year in the 2010s and 2020s.
“Heat stress is a really difficult situation to deal with,” said Thomas Bobick, who chairs the A10.50 Committee on 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 individual workers’ ability to handle heat varies, said Bobick, who retired last year after 33 years at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Workers who are new to working in warmer conditions, for example, may have a more severe reaction to the heat than acclimatized workers, he said.
David May, the committee’s co-chair, said that in developing heat standards, regulators and lawmakers must study heat-related causes of workplace morbidity and mortality.
Both Bobick and May said that while acclimatization can help with workplace heat exposure, a general trend of workers experiencing negative reactions to heat is likely driving the push to develop more uniform workplace heat standards.