|NOIRA on Heat Illness Prevention
|Ended on 6/9/2021
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) strongly supports a heat illness prevention standard for indoor and outdoor work activities in Virginia. We urge the Safety and Health Codes Boards and Department of Labor and Industry to consider our recommendations when developing the proposed standard.
AFSCME District Council 20 members are on the front lines, keeping our communities running in Virginia and the District of Columbia. They and other public service workers are hard at work in all-weather conditions providing emergency services, health care, transportation, sanitation, public safety and other essential services. Indoor work activities, just like outdoor work activities, pose a risk of heat stress hazards. Indoor work activities such as working in a poorly ventilated spaces during heat wave, cleaning in a building that is normally vacated during the summertime and working in a basement next to an aging boiler are all worker scenarios our members face. Many of these workers are exposed to hot environments in which they are at risk of heat illnesses or death. They need the adequate and enforceable worker protections to do their job safely.
Currently, neither the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) nor the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health (VOSH) Program has promulgated comprehensive heat illness regulations. Without protections, Virginia’s workers are at risk of severe illness or death. Workers are at risk of heat stress in both outdoor work and indoor work, particularly when engaged in strenuous activities or with inadequate ventilation. Because OSHA has not issued a heat standard, it must use its general duty clause to enforce employers’ obligations to provide a safe and healthy workplace with respect to these issues. There are significant limitations to the general duty clause, however, that make it difficult to enforce and result in its infrequent use. In 2019, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission’s (OSHRC) decided in the Secretary of Labor v. A. H. Strugill Roofing, Inc., that the Secretary failed to establish the existence of a heat stress hazard using the general duty clause. As a result, the heat stress citation was overturned. Using the general duty clause leaves the burden of proof on OSHA. Despite the severity of heat hazards, the commission’s decision demonstrates the difficulties of enforcing and establishing a heat stress citation without a specific standard.
VOSH should review OSHA state plans with state regulations designed to protect workers from heat stress hazards. California, Minnesota and Washington have adopted protections that must be implemented when workers are exposed to hot environments: California and Washington protect outdoor workers, and Minnesota’s standard protects indoor workers. Further, Maryland recently enacted a law requiring Maryland Occupational Safety and Health to promulgate protections by October 2022. Because the Cal/OSHA heat illness prevention standard is the most comprehensive, we strongly suggest that it be used as the foundation of the proposed standard.
Many employers do not have a heat illness prevention program. Among those with programs, many lack basic elements such as hydration, shaded rest areas, rest breaks and acclimatization protocols. AFSCME strongly recommends that the VOSH standard for a heat illness prevention program include the components described below. Some of these recommendations are drawn from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Criteria for a Recommended Standard: Occupational Exposure to Hot Environments. In that guidance, NIOSH sets Recommended Exposure Limits (REL) for acclimatized workers and Recommended Alert Limits (RAL) for unacclimatized workers. Those recommendations are intended to provide limits of heat stress to reduce workers’ risks of incurring heat-related illnesses.
Employers should establish, implement and maintain a written heat illness prevention plan. The written elements of the plan should include:
The plan should be reviewed and updated whenever necessary to reflect new or modified tasks and procedures that affect occupational exposure and new or revised employee positions with occupational exposure.
Workers should be involved in every step of the process. Workers know where the hazards are in their workplaces and how to reduce or eliminate them. Employers should develop and implement a plan for participation by workers and their authorized representatives.
The employer should conduct a workplace-specific identification of all interactions, areas, activities, processes and equipment that could potentially expose employees to heat hazards. The determination should include but is not limited to the job tasks being undertaken; the work environment (indoors or outdoors); and work that’s conducted in a non-fixed setting where the employer does not completely control the work environment.
Employers should develop and implement procedures for the use of engineering and administrative controls and PPE, including:
The employer should establish and maintain an accurate record of any heat illness or injury and the environmental and work conditions at the time of the illness or injury. Recordkeeping is vital since the signs and symptoms of heat stress are often misdiagnosed and underreported.
The plan should include a robust whistleblower protection provision to help ensure compliance with the standard’s provisions.
AFSCME urges VOSH to consider our recommendations described above in promulgating a proposed standard. We appreciate this opportunity to share our views and look forward to working with VOSH on our shared goal of protecting workers against heat stress hazards in the workplace.
Health and Safety Specialist
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees