June 17, 2021

OSHA to Consider Potential for Heat Illness Prevention Rulemaking

The topic of heat illness prevention in outdoor and indoor work settings appears for the first time on the Department of Labor’s regulatory agenda, which was most recently updated on June 11 for spring 2021. According to the agenda, OSHA plans to issue a request for information in October of this year to “begin a dialogue and engage with stakeholders to explore the potential for rulemaking” on heat illness prevention.

OSHA currently relies on the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act to protect workers from heat stress. The agency predicts that it may become more difficult to protect workers from heat hazards in this way following the 2019 decision of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission to overturn a general duty clause heat stress citation in the case Secretary of Labor v. A.H. Sturgill Roofing, Inc.

“While practical considerations may have led OSHA, over the years, to rely on the general duty clause in lieu of setting standards, the provision seems to have increasingly become more of a ‘gotcha’ and ‘catch all’ for the agency to utilize, which as a practical matter often leaves employers confused as to what is required of them,” a footnote in the commission’s decision (PDF) reads.

Rulemaking activities related to heat illness prevention are listed on the spring 2021 regulatory agenda in the pre-rule stage. OSHA notes that heat stress thresholds, heat acclimatization planning, exposure monitoring, and medical monitoring are among many issues it must consider regarding the regulation of heat hazards as well as “the potentially broad scope” of such regulatory efforts.

Standards for heat exposure are in place in the states of California, Washington, and Minnesota. Recently, the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry released a proposal to draft a new standard on occupational exposure to heat illness. AIHA submitted comments (PDF) in support of Virginia’s intent to develop and adopt a standard “to reduce/eliminate employee injuries, illnesses, and fatalities due to exposure to excessive heat at indoor and outdoor places of work.”

Further details on OSHA’s rulemaking activities related to heat illness prevention are available from the regulatory agenda.

Related: Articles published in The Synergist in April 2016 and April 2020 discuss protecting workers in hot environments and critical factors for heat stress assessment and prevention, respectively. In September 2020, an episode of AIHA’s video podcast 5 on the Frontline focused on heat hazards faced by farmworkers. Most recently, an article on the cover of the May 2021 issue of The Synergist explored whether extreme heat is affecting kidney function in outdoor workers.