Skip to Content

Forecast: Very hot. What your employer should be doing to protect you on high-heat days

By Jeanne Sahadi, CNN

New York (CNN) — Summer is just starting in North America, and already an intense “heat dome” is forecast to affect more than half the US population this week.

Some areas, including Montpelier, Vermont; Syracuse, New York; and Pittsburgh, haven’t seen heat like this in about three decades.

Along with stifling days comes the risk of developing dangerous heat-related conditions, such as dehydration, heat stress, heat exhaustion, heat stroke and other hazards.

While you can take as many measures as you like to stay cool at home, what about when you go to work? What responsibilities does your employer have to prevent you from suffering a heat-related illness? And what can you do if you think those aren’t being met?

Under the federal law that created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, employers always have a duty to keep your workplace free of known hazards. “This includes protecting workers from heat-related hazards,” OSHA notes on its website.

And it applies whether you work outdoors or indoors.

While some states have specific laws governing occupational heat exposure, there is no heat-specific federal regulation mandating how employers must prevent heat illness in the workplace. But they are expected to “take reasonable action to prevent their employees from illness and death.” Nor is there a specific threshold that defines “extreme heat,” although OSHA said it is working “towards enacting a federal heat standard that encompasses indoor and outdoor workers.”

The heat an employee’s body experiences will depend on a lot of factors beyond the general temperature. “For someone working outside without shade and working on cement – the heat index is going to be higher for them than [if the thermometer says] it’s 85 degrees,” said attorney Jason Krasno, a senior partner at Krasno, Krasno & Onwudinjo, who specializes in worker compensation cases.

The same goes if someone is working in high humidity or in rooms where air circulation is poor and there is no air conditioning. Anyone required to wear a uniform that doesn’t breathe may be at greater risk of overheating. And an employee’s underlying chronic conditions such as asthma and heart disease may make them more vulnerable to heat risks.

At minimum, your employer should take basic preventative measures

All that said, both OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which research the prevention of work-related illnesses and injury, provide recommendations for employers to follow as they seek to keep workers safe on hot days.

They recommend companies:

Have a heat illness prevention plan. It should outline procedures, supplies and equipment necessary to prevent workers from getting a heat-related illness, as well as an emergency action plan if a worker shows signs of distress.

Make water easily accessible. “Encourage workers to drink at least one cup every 20 minutes, even if they are not thirsty,” according to OSHA recommendations.

Allow regular rest breaks. These should be in the shade or a cool area.

Give employees time to acclimate. OSHA recommends the so-called “20% rule.” “On the first day, don’t allow employees to work more than 20% of a shift at full intensity in the heat. Increase their time by no more than 20% a day until they are used to working in the heat.”

In a worker’s first few days, the agency notes, “absolutely all symptoms should be taken seriously” and workers should be allowed to stop working and get an evaluation to see if they’ve developed a heat-related illness.

“New employees whose bodies have not had time to adjust to working in the heat are most vulnerable — nearly 3 out of 4 workers who die from heat-related causes die in their first week on the job,” OSHA notes in its Extreme Heat Hazard Alert.

Encourage employees to dress for the heat. That means wearing light-colored, loose fitting, breathable clothing.

Monitor workers for signs and symptoms of heat illness. These include dizziness, fainting, nausea and muscle spasms. Also, do verbal checks frequently with workers who are wearing face coverings or wearing face equipment like a respirator. Managers should encourage employees to do the same for themselves and their coworkers. Should any signs appear, try to cool the worker down and “when in doubt, call 911,” OSHA recommends.

Change work hours. Another OSHA-recommended accommodation employers may make when feasible is to alter employees’ working hours so that they work primarily during the coolest parts of a day — such as very early morning or after the sun goes down, said attorney Alka Ramchandani-Raj, who is co-chair of the occupational safety and health practice group at Littler, a law firm representing employers in employment law and labor practice issues.

What you can do

To find out more about your particular employer’s obligations and commitment to providing a healthy workplace, first check the company’s safety handbook to see what recommendations they build into their policies and what the best way is to alert managers about potentially unsafe working conditions, Ramchandani-Raj noted.

Next, check to see which rules and recommendations your employer should be following in the state where you work. While more than 20 states are subject to federal OSHA requirements, which establish the most basic obligations of most US employers, your particular state may have its own OSHA-like agency that establishes more stringent rules.

If you suspect your employer is not providing a healthy workplace, you can file a confidential complaint with OSHA either by calling 800-321-OSHA or filing online. “You have the right to speak up about hazards without fear of retaliation,” OSHA notes.

The agency also noted that it “is planning enhanced enforcement actions, with a strategic focus on geographic locations and industries where high heat impacts vulnerable worker populations.” Translation: More inspection activity and greater enforcement.

And, it added, “OSHA will also be providing outreach and compliance assistance to ensure employers, including those not covered by the OSH Act, and worker organizations have the tools to protect workers from hazardous heat.”

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

Article Topic Follows: CNN - Money

Jump to comments ↓

CNN Newsource


KION 46 is committed to providing a forum for civil and constructive conversation.

Please keep your comments respectful and relevant. You can review our Community Guidelines by clicking here

If you would like to share a story idea, please submit it here.

Skip to content