Workplace Temperatures in the Hot Seat

Congress is considering new rules on employers to protect workers who labor in sweltering temperatures.

The protections could seek paid breaks and water for workers, plus limits on how long they can be in hot conditions, whether they’re working in kitchens, fields, factories, or construction sites. As many as 130 million workers could be affected by the change, according to Public Citizen, a consumer and health safety organization.

“There is no clear guidance for employers about what to do to protect against heat,” said Shanna Devine, worker health and safety advocate for the group.

But some Republicans and employers say the rules are unnecessary because the government already has catch-all standards to investigate workplace safety, including heat-related incidents. They note that the Obama administration in 2012 rejected pleas to set a heat standard, opting instead for an educational campaign.

The agency at the center of the debate is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, which enforces federal workplace standards. No federal rule exists to explicitly protect workers from extreme heat, but California, Minnesota, and Washington state have their own protections, as does the U.S. military.

From 1992 to 2016, heat injured at least 69,374 people and killed 783 others, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Being overheated while at work can lead to dehydration, nausea, a stroke, and long-term exposure can lead to kidney failure.

House Hearing

The issue received a House hearing in July, when lawmakers examined the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act introduced by Democratic Reps. Judy Chu of California and Raúl Grijalva of Arizona.

The bill is named after Valdivia, a farmworker who died of heatstroke after picking grapes for 10 hours in 105-degree weather. It would require OSHA to set a heat standard within 42 months, and would have employers provide training about how to recognize and respond to heat illness. The signs of overheating, which include headache and nausea, often mimic other common ailments.

Republicans at the hearing expressed concerns about imposing a “one-size-fits-all mandate on employers.” They said it might be best for states to set up their own rules, given that people can become overheated differently depending on what kind of work they’re doing and the fact that some states are more humid than others.

“More mandates from Washington do not necessarily equal better policies to help workers, and rushed partisan policies rarely yield efficient, effective or permanent solutions,” Rep. Bradley Byrne of Alabama, said at the hearing.

Petition to Change Standards

OSHA doesn’t need Congress to set a heat standard, but if agency officials are unwilling to consider it, then a law would obligate officials to act. Public Citizen-led a petition in July 2018 asking the agency to set off a rulemaking process, but didn’t hear back. Among those who signed onto the petition was David Michaels, who had rejected the heat standards when he was assistant secretary of labor in the Obama administration.

Setting a heat standard would face an uphill battle under the Trump administration, which has been largely committed to cutting red tape. The issue also wades into other topics that have been divisive on Capitol Hill, from immigration to climate change. People who are living in the U.S. illegally would be less likely to alert employers that they need to rest out of fear that their immigration status would be used against them. Backers of a federal standard also warn of hotter temperatures in the future from climate change, which has skeptics among congressional Republicans.

Employers have been making some changes on their own. The Associated General Contractors of America, for instance, has directed its members to be careful about the time of day that construction workers are on-site and does wellness training.

Kevin Cannon, senior director of safety and health services for the group, said at the House hearing that a new federal standard would be “unnecessary, unworkable, and impractical.”

“Employers would have to take into consideration the age of the employee, pre-existing medical conditions, and whether an employee is taking certain medications,” he said.

But supporters of issuing a heat standard say many won’t change unless they’re forced to. Thomas Bernard, an occupational health expert for the College of Public Health at the University of South Florida, said the rules should set a minimum standard and have a menu of options for employers to choose from.

“Having a written guideline starts to put a framework about what it is you can do, and it has that extra nudge to do something,” said Bernard, who also testified at the hearing. He thinks that though workplaces have improved, progress is now stagnating.

Government Agencies

OSHA isn’t the only agency that helps keep workplaces safe. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which investigates workplace hazards and makes policy recommendations, has listed criteria to prevent heat stress, but doesn’t have any power to enforce them. The agency has said that heat-related problems are under-reported.

Employers are concerned about the enforcement aspect of a new heat standard. If OSHA finds companies are running afoul of the rules during inspections, it will not only issue fines but also citations, which could imperil companies’ ability to land contracts. OSHA already issues penalties when workplaces aren’t found to be “free from recognized hazards.”

Those who support a new standard, however, worry not just about making sure that workplaces are held accountable but also about ensuring workers are protected before anything goes wrong. As evidence that protections are generally too weak, they point to data showing that more heat-related penalties have been issued in California, where the standards are laid out, than have been nationwide.

Devine from Public Citizen called the current rules “grossly inadequate.”

“It’s largely reactive rather than preventive,” she said.

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