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Prevent Heat Stress Injuries and Liability

All employers have a legal obligation to safeguard their workers against the risks of heat stress. This article will explain where the obligation comes from and how to comply with it.

Heat Stress and the Law

OSHA doesn’t have a specific standard on heat stress hazards. But it has cited employers for exposing employees to excessively hot work environments under the General Duty Clause (section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act) which requires employers to keep the workplace free of recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm. A hazard is considered “recognized” if the employer actually recognizes the hazard or the hazard is generally recognized by the employer’s industry. Quite frankly, it would be difficult to argue that excessive heat is not a recognized hazard.

One example of a case in which an employer was cited for a heat hazard under the General Duty Clause is Duriron Co. v. Secretary of Labor, 750 F.2d 28 (6th Cir. 1984). The court in that case found that the efforts the employer had made to reduce heat stress was evidence that it actually “recognized” the hazard.

5 Guidelines

One lesson of the Duriron case is that the precautions you take to guard employees against heat hazards must be adequate. Half-hearted measures are the worst of both worlds: They show you recognized the danger but they don’t do enough to prevent it.

Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when implementing heat-stress prevention measures at your workplace:

1. Cut Employees Some Slack When Working in High Temperatures

Make sure that supervisors and employees understand that drinking water in hot temperatures is not “slacking off.” Employees should be allowed to drink as much as they want as often as they want. You should also let new employees or employees returning to work after an extended absence (3 days or more) get acclimated to the high temperatures in the workplace before driving them to maximum physical exertion.

2. Provide Drinkable Water

Keep in mind that OSHA requires employers to provide potable (drinkable and cold) water in certain workplaces (see, for example, 29 CFR 1910.141(b) and 1926.65(n)).

3. Implement Engineering Controls

Make sure work areas are adequately ventilated. Consider the physical conditions in the workplace, such as ambient air temperature, radiant heat, air movement, high humidity, etc. In order to adequately measure the heat-related conditions in the workplace, you should be familiar with the various sampling methods (e.g. body temperature measurements, environmental measurements, wet bulb globe temperature index (WBGT), and portable heat stress monitors).

4. Consider Physiological Factors

Take into account all of the factors that can cause heat stress on the human body, such as an employee’s age, weight, physical fitness, medical conditions and any past heat-related injuries. This will help you identify which employees are most susceptible.

5. Educate Employees

Train employees how to identify the symptoms of heat stress both in themselves and others. Describe the different forms of heat illness, such as heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, heat collapse, heat rashes and heat fatigue, and the appropriate first aid measures to provide in response to each.