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OSHA creates program to protect workers against heat

by Ashleigh Petersen

For the first time, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has launched a National Emphasis Program (NEP) to protect millions of workers from heat illness and injuries. Through the program, which went into effect April 8, 2022, OSHA will conduct heat-related workplace inspections before workers suffer completely preventable injuries, illnesses or, even worse, fatalities.

The NEP is designed to encourage employers to protect workers from heat hazards by providing employee access to water, rest, shade, adequate training, and implementing acclimatization procedures for new or returning employees. It contains both enforcement and outreach/compliance assistance components.

The NEP establishes heat priority days when the heat index is expected to be 80 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.

On heat priority days:

  • OSHA will initiate compliance assistance in the targeted high-risk industries.
  • OSHA also will continue to inspect any alleged heat-related fatality/catastrophe, complaint or referral regardless of whether the worksite falls within a targeted industry of this NEP.

In addition, OSHA will conduct programmed (pre-planned) inspections in targeted high-risk industries on any day that the National Weather Service has announced a heat warning or advisory for the local area.

On heat priority days, OSHA field staff will engage in proactive outreach and technical/ compliance assistance to help keep workers safe on the job.

Impacted industries

The NEP targets more than 70 high-risk industries based on:

  • Bureau of Labor Statistics data on incidence rates of heat-related illnesses and number of employee days away from work rate.
  • Elevated numbers of fatalities or hospitalizations reported by employers to OSHA.
  • Highest number of heat-related general duty clause 5(a)(1) violations and Hazard Alert Letters over a five-year period (1/1/2017 through 12/31/2021), or highest number of OSHA heat inspections since 2017.

According to OSHA, workers suffer more than 3,500 injuries and illnesses related to heat each year. The NEP is part of a larger, interagency Biden-Harris administration effort to protect workers and communities from extreme heat and rising temperatures resulting from climate change.

“Tragically, the three-year average of workplace deaths caused by heat has doubled since the early 1990s. These extreme heat hazards aren’t limited to outdoor occupations, the seasons or geography. From farm workers in California to construction workers in Texas and warehouse workers in Pennsylvania, heat illness — exacerbated by our climate’s rising temperatures — presents a growing hazard for millions of workers,” said Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh.

“This enforcement program is another step towards our goal of a federal heat standard. Through this work, we’re also empowering workers with knowledge of their rights, especially the right to speak up about their safety without fear of retaliation. I’m grateful for the vice president’s leadership on this issue, and for her demonstrated commitment to keeping workers safe on the job,” Walsh said.

The NEP will remain in effect for three years unless canceled or extended by a superseding directive.