Water. Rest. Shade. Repeat
That’s the theme of OSHA’s annual summer campaign (well, all but the repeat portion which is added cautionary editorializing by this lawyer) telling employers that they have a duty to help prevent heat-related illnesses under the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The Act mandates that employers provide a workplace that is free from “recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm” to employees.
According to OSHA, thousands of outdoor workers suffer from heat-related illnesses each year, ranging from mild heat exhaustion to life-threatening heat stroke, and at least 30 employees died from heat-related injuries last year.
And, while OSHA up until now has directed its efforts mostly in the areas of education and training, rather than enforcement, employers are advised to evaluate potential heat illness hazards inherent in their employee’s job-related activities with the understanding that enforcement may lie just around the corner.
While OSHA has no standards regulating heat illness, and has not yet proposed a heat illness standard, is has used the general duty clause that simply states that employers have a duty to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that are likely to cause death or serious physical harm. The agency has not hesitated to cite and penalize employers who were deemed to have knowledge of and subject their employees to recognized hazards associated with heat exposure. In one extreme and high-profile case in California involving a pregnant teenage farm worker who died after she pruned grapes for nearly nine hours in triple digit heat, without access to water or shade, the agency fined the employer a record $262,000 and prosecuted the owner under the state’s criminal laws.
Just as worrisome are any potential civil lawsuits which can use any of the agency’s citations as fodder for wrongful death and other litigation showing that the employer failed to provide training to supervisors and employees for taking preventative steps including hydrating often by keeping lots of cool water in close proximity to the work area; encourage employees to take breaks away from direct sun and direct heat sources; routinely check workers who are at risk; avoid caffeine and other energy drinks which can cause dehydration; and where possible, provide fans or other means of air flow.
Employers must be cognizant of and take preventative measures as temperatures continue to rise as a hot summer – so important for our HVAC/R businesses but can prove deadly as well – rolls along.
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