construction worker experiencing heat stress

It’s getting hot in here – OSHA heat standard on the horizon

Author: Laura Brody, Senior EHS Content Specialist

The year 2023 was deemed the planet’s hottest year in recorded history by far, and it’s not getting any cooler. Heat stress is becoming an increasingly prominent workplace hazard and is the leading weather-related cause of death in the United States. Protecting workers from the dangers of heat has never been more important.

Why is the rule taking so long?

Since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued its advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) in 2021, we have yet to see a final heat stress rule. OSHA has completed the small business review stage of rule development and is still working out important details before issuing a proposed rule, which is expected to cover both indoor and outdoor work environments.

In addition to considering the conditions that may be present in outdoor and indoor work environments across all industries, the final rule will need to account for many other variable factors, like the geography and climate of different regions of the country. Determining what temperature will trigger rule requirements is tricky, in part because average temperatures in different parts of the country vary drastically.

Employees in Arizona are likely more acclimatized to, or used to, the extreme heat than employees in Minnesota. In addition, heat-related illness can occur at almost any ambient temperature, depending on how strenuous the work being performed is and what kind of clothing and personal protective equipment (PPE) workers are wearing. In light of this complexity, the process of finalizing a heat stress rule will take a great deal of time and input from stakeholders to help ensure the rule’s effectiveness.

Employers should begin preparing now by creating a heat illness prevention program at their workplaces. This is important, even though the final rule may not be ready for a while. It’s better to be proactive and protect employees from heat-related illnesses.

Waiting for the final rule could put workers at risk. OSHA has compiled some excellent guidance materials to help employers do just that. OSHA is working to prevent heat hazards at work by increasing inspections and enforcement, even without a specific heat stress standard.

In the meantime, OSHA is taking action

OSHA’s National Emphasis Program (NEP) for heat stress prevention was started in 2022 and has expanded on the agency’s ongoing heat illness prevention campaign by increasing its outreach and education efforts and implementing an enforcement program to target industries with the highest exposures to heat-related hazards.

Because there’s currently no federal heat stress standard, OSHA continues to address workplace heat hazards by citing employers for violations of the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, which requires employers to provide a place of employment free from recognized hazards. OSHA claims that between 2015 and 2020, it has conducted approximately 200 heat-related inspections each year, many of which resulted in citations under the General Duty Clause.

It’s safe to say that preventing heat-related illness is one of OSHA’s top priorities right now, and employers would be well advised to act accordingly.