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OSHA introduces program to combat workplace heat hazards

Federal officials are embarking on a new endeavor to protect workers from illness and injury from heat exposure after the Biden administration announced the move last year.

The Occupational Safety and Health administration last week introduced its National Emphasis Program on heat hazards, a temporary initiative meant to curtail specific threats to workplace safety. OSHA is expected to begin using its new authority to conduct inspections to prevent workers from suffering injury or deaths from heat exposure.

The start of the National Emphasis Program is an early step toward improving enforcement and compliance while OSHA continues work to develop a rule for preventing heat illnesses. The enforcement effort is part of the priority the Biden Administration is placing on protecting workers from extreme heat amid climate change, according to a news release.

Between 2011 and 2019, 344 people in the U.S. died on the job from heat exposure at work, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of those workers, 42% were in the construction, repair or cleaning industries.

“Tragically, the three-year average of workplace deaths caused by heat has doubled since the early 1990s,” Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said in a statement. “These extreme heat hazards aren’t limited to outdoor occupations, the seasons or geography. From farm workers in California to construction workers in Texas and warehouse workers in Pennsylvania, heat illness — exacerbated by our climate’s rising temperatures — presents a growing hazard for millions of workers.”

The program will have OSHA undertaking inspections of indoor and outdoor workplaces in 70 high-risk industries, including construction, at times when the National Weather Service has issued a heat warning or advisory. OSHA inspectors and staff members will provide technical assistance, as well as planned inspections, to help businesses keep workers safe from heat hazards on days when the heat index registers 80 degrees or higher.

Local OSHA offices are expected to reach out to employers, unions and other groups in specific industries. OSHA will also offer a free, confidential health and safety consultation program for small and medium-sized businesses to help employers develop plans to curtail heat-related illnesses and injuries on the job. A meeting for interested parties is scheduled for early May to discuss OSHA’s work to combat these hazards.

The agency’s National Emphasis Program comes after OSHA last fall published a notice to embark on the rulemaking process needed to adopt a federal heat standard. The agency intends to use “all tools at its disposal” to reduce heat hazards, using a combination of enforcement, outreach and compliance assistance, according to a news release.