Organization calls for heat illness standard

Date Posted
Mike Rich

The Public Citizen, a non-profit organization focused on promoting legislation that protects basic human needs, has sent a petition to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) calling for a mandatory standard to protect workers from injury and death resulting from extreme heat exposure.

“Some farm workers and construction workers work for hours on end and there are no accommodations for rest breaks. This is what commonly leads to heat deaths” says Dr. Sammy Almashat, a researcher with Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “We are asking for rest breaks in proportion to the temperature outside as well as employers being required to provide workers with a certain amount of water every hour. This does not require some sort of a technological breakthrough. It’s very easy and inexpensive.”

During group during the past 20 years, at least 523 workers have died and more than 43,000 have suffered heat-related injuries serious enough to result in at least one day away from work.  However according to the group since many worker injuries and deaths go unreported and many serious injuries are not counted in company data, these numbers are a vast underestimate of the true scale of the problem.

“These deaths are completely preventable with just a few, inexpensive interventions, some of which have already been implemented in several states,” says Dr. Thomas Bernard, who reviewed a proposed NIOSH heat standard back in 1986. “The time is long overdue for a federal heat stress standard that will protect workers from dangerous heat exposure.”

Although OSHA does not have a standard that specifically requires employers to protect employees from the dangers of high temperature environments, the government organization can use the general duty cause to cite an employer for not protecting workers from workplace hazards.

In a response to the petition Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels wrote that “OSHA agrees exposure to extreme heat can lead to death; however workers with adverse health effects from heat exposure experience dehydration, cramps, and exhaustion, and other affects and are able to recover fairly quickly when the appropriate measures are taken.”

While OSHA has yet to enact a heat standard, three states – California, Washington and Minnesota – and the military have enacted standards that go a long way toward protecting their workers from extreme heat conditions. The standards require employers to do such things as provide drinking water, shade and rest breaks, in addition to training employees on the hazards of heat stress.

In the five years since California enacted the first outdoor heat standard in the country, this single state has conducted 138 times more inspections resulting in a citation for unsafe heat exposure practices than OSHA conducted during that time. In fact, California conducted more of these inspections (195) under its standard in the first half of 2011 alone than OSHA has completed in almost 40 years.

“OSHA has demonstrated an alarming lack of oversight over the past 40 years in the face of this recognized and entirely preventable hazard,” said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “Only with the implementation of a specific, enforceable standard will hundreds of lives be saved and thousands of heat injuries prevented over the next decade.”

The Farmworker Justice; the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America unions have all signed on in support of the initiative.

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