|With average temperatures rising as a result of climate change, a top OSHA official is warning employers to ensure they take adequate precautions to protect their workers from heat-related injury or death, or face risk of enforcement actions and penalties.
Kelly Schnapp, director of OSHA’s Office of Science and Technology Assessment, told a May 26 webinar sponsored by the White House that employers have an obligation under the OSH Act’s “General Duty” clause to protect workers from heat-related risks.
The issue is “taken very seriously,” she said. “We’ve seen way too many [heat-related] deaths over the years,” she added.
She said OSHA is aware of thousands of cases where workers have died on the job as a result of extreme heat. She noted that of the 84 heat-related deaths investigated by OSHA in 2013-14, 17 of 23 died within the first three days on the job, an indication that employers may not be providing workers with enough time to acclimate to hotter weather.
She said such deaths are “real and preventable” and employers have an obligation to protect their workers.
Schnapp cited OSHA guidance that recommends employers allow employees to acclimate to heat, provide shade and cold water as well as training to supervisors.
Her presentation was one of several on the webinar aimed at encouraging improved training of employers and others to prevent heat-related deaths or illnesses.
Others on the webinar listed similar strategies to protect workers and others from heat risks. For example, Doug Casa, CEO of the Korey Stringer Institute, detailed his efforts to get states and sports officials to adopt measures to prevent adverse effects from heat at sporting events, though he stressed that the strategies apply to outdoor workers too.
White House science advisor John Holdren told the webinar that temperatures are rising as a result of greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. He said each decade since the 1950s has been warmer than the last, though the warming has not been uniform.
But he said there has been a significant increase in heat extremes, which occurs when temperature increases combine with increased humidity to create danger and even extreme danger.
In these circumstances, “working outdoors becomes inefficient and then impossible as heat and humidity increase,” he said. Holdren added that the “capacity to do work” declines to zero at some of the heat indices now being encountered.
“At very high heat values, working outdoors is in fact fatal,” Holdren said.
Looking forward, he said to expect wide ranging fatalities as heat incidents become more widespread. For example, the heat wave that killed tens of thousands in Europe in 2003 will become the norm.
Holdren’s comments echo results of a recent report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program — a multi-agency group — which shows that climate change and temperature increases that result may increase the severity and prevalence of known occupational hazards, as well as the development of new hazards.
Most at risk are outdoor workers, the report said, which includes agriculture workers, commercial fishermen, construction workers, transportation workers, and first responders. Workers in hot indoor environments such as warehouses and factories are also at risk.
“The risk workers face from climate change includes working in hotter temperatures and the possibility of longer spans of hot days for outdoor work. These kinds of exposures can cause heat related illnesses, as well as stress and fatigue which can put workers at risk for injury. Workers may also have less control over their exposures to climate change related risks than the general public,” NIOSH said in touting the report.
But despite increased risk of higher heat exposures, NIOSH recently decided to retain its current standards to limit heat exposures, though the agency is planning two new research areas: the effects of climate change on workers and how heat stress affects the toxic response to chemicals.
The institute recently updated its criteria document governing occupational exposure to heat and hot environments, deciding that its current Recommended Alert Limits (RALs) and Recommended Exposure Limits (RELs) can remain unchanged.
“It was determined that the current RALs for unacclimatized workers and RELs for acclimatized workers are still protective for most workers,” the document says. No new data were identified to use as the basis for updated RALs and RELs. Most healthy workers exposed to environmental and metabolic heat below the appropriate NIOSH RALs or RELs will be protected from developing adverse health effects,” the document says.
But NIOSH decided to remove the ceiling limits for acclimatized and unacclimatized workers after finding that many workers live and work in temperatures above those limits. Despite leaving the standards in place, the document identifies two newer areas of research that will likely continue to grow: the effects of climate change on workers and how heat stress affects the response to toxic chemicals.