For the second year in a row, Washington is implementing an emergency heat-stress rule designed to protect outdoor workers. It took effect on June 5 and will run through October. The rule requires employers to provide outdoor workers with a quart of drinking water per hour, to educate employees about risk factors for heat-related illness, and to have some area to treat workers who exhibit heat-related symptoms, such as shade canopies or air conditioning.
The Department implemented the rule after the death of an agricultural worker from heat-related stress in 2005; in 2006, a construction worker died on the job while working in a trench, further solidifying the Department’s resolve about the need for such a measure.
Unsurprisingly, the measure is unpopular with several business groups, which view the rule as both needless and an intrusive layer of bureaucracy. An additional bone of contention is that business had no input into the measure. At the end of this season, the state’s Department of Labor & Industries plans to establish a permanent rule and to seek public input in the process.
California regulation was the pacesetter
Washington is not the only state with such a measure. In 2006, California became the first sate to adopt a heat stress regulation after a spike of 13 heat-related deaths in 2005. In a reminder to employers for the coming season, Cal/OSHA reviews the basic provisions:
Under the new heat illness regulation, employers are required to take four basic steps to prevent heat illness at all outdoor worksites: develop and implement written procedures on heat illness prevention; provide heat illness training to all employees; make readily available and encourage each employee to drink four 8-ounce cups of fresh water per hour; and provide immediate access to shade or any cool area out of the sun for recovery periods for at least five minutes at a time.
Coming to a state near you?
Could such regulations be the beginning of a trend that will move to other states? Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report which showed that heat-related deaths are increasing, although some think that the increase can be attributed to better tracking. The report is not specific to workplaces, but if the numbers of heat-related deaths continue on an upward trend, it is possible that we may see an increase in state efforts to protect at-risk populations, including workers
Wise employers who have outdoor workers will look to control risk and prevent heat-related illness, regardless of state mandates. Any time the temperature exceeds 90 degrees, workers should be protected. In addition to providing sufficient water and access to shade, employers should be on the alert for employees with high risk factors. Acclimation to the heat is very significant – a new worker or a worker returning from vacation is at greater risk than a worker who has been acclimated to the heat over a few weeks. Many cases of heat stress occur to workers on the first day of the job. Other risk factors may include pre-existing medical conditions – obesity, diabetes, and heart, lung and kidney disease. Workers who are on medications and workers who are nursing hangovers may be at risk because they are starting work already in a dehydrated mode. OSHA has a Quick Card on Heat Stress (also in Spanish), as well as a Fact Sheet about Working Outdoors in Warm Climates(PDF) that includes prevention tips for heat stress, along with other outdoor hazards.
California – Heat related illness prevention and information
Washington – Outdoor Heat-Related Illness (Heat Stress)
OSHA Technical Manual on Heat Stress
Heat Illness in the Workplace: How You Can Control the Risk
CDC Frequently Asked Questions About Extreme Heat
Heat stress: fluid and electrolyte balance can be fatal