Last year shattered the record as the hottest in recorded history, and this year will probably be worse, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says, which will increase focus on the challenge of keeping people who work outdoors safe and healthy enough to do their jobs.

“Looking ahead, there is a one-in-three chance that 2024 will be warmer than 2023, and a 99% chance that 2024 will rank among the top five warmest years,” NOAA said in January. 

The increasing heat, which scientists say is driven by climate change, is behind an effort that the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been undertaking since 2021 to develop a heat standard for worker safety.

The agency took an important step in advancing such a regulation when OSHA's Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health recommended last month that OSHA “move forward expeditiously” with developing a proposed rule.

In their presentation to the committee, OSHA officials outlined the framework for a proposed rule but did not say when they expected to publish it.

As of now, OSHA is considering requiring employers to create plans to evaluate and control heat hazards in their workplace. It also would require appointment of a heat safety coordinator.

OSHA envisions two heat triggers that would require action on the part of employers. At the initial heat trigger of 80 degrees, employers would have to make drinking water available and offer break areas with enough room to accommodate the workers.

For the higher heat trigger of 90 degrees, OSHA is considering requiring a 15-minute break every two hours and allowing use of an unpaid meal break as a rest break. In addition, at the 90-degree trigger, there would be requirements for observation and supervision.

“Some options we're currently considering are specifying observation by a buddy system where employees would pair up with each other or [be paired] by a supervisor or a safety coordinator that’s on site,” Stephen Schayer, director of OSHA’s Office of Physical Hazards, told the meeting.

The farm community has been preparing for the regulations for some time, says Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers.

Micheal-Marsh.jpgMichael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers“We've been planning on it, actually, for a couple of years now,” he said. The preparation includes holding workshops with growers on heat awareness and heat illness “and just preparing for what we might see in a regulation.”

Workers compensation policies require injury and illness prevention programs, he said, adding that “it would be weird if you didn't have heat protocols already included in that in order to get your workers comp policy.”

He said some growers have switched to harvesting at night to take advantage of cooler temperatures.

Marsh thinks OSHA’s rule will probably end up looking a lot like California’s, which has an 80-degree trigger requiring shade, water and other palliatives. The state is one of five with heat exposure standards; the others are Washington, Colorado, Minnesota and Oregon.

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For worker advocates, a federal standard cannot come too soon. “The best-case scenario is, they'll get it out while it's still hot,” meaning this summer, said Chris Cain, safety and health director for North America's Building Trades Unions. Cain, who also is chair of the ACCSH, said even the introduction of a proposal can have a positive impact.

“That really gets the attention, in our case, of the construction industry and of employers, and they take implementing controls a lot more seriously when they see the specifics of what OSHA has in mind,” she said.

Excessive heat can kill. OSHA estimates 33,890 work-related heat injuries and illnesses involving days away from work from 2011-2020, an average of 3,389 per year. In 2021, the latest year for which it has reported data, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said 36 people died of environmental heat exposure in the U.S. The number was not broken down by occupation.

OSHA's Schayer said the numbers “are likely vast underestimates as a result of undercounting” and other reasons. Inside Climate News reported that in California, 168 farmworkers died of heat exposure between 2018 and 2022; the state reported two deaths during the same years.

“It’s tough to get figures on this sort of thing,” said Juley Fulcher, a worker health and safety advocate at Public Citizen, which petitioned OSHA to adopt a heat standard in 2021.

“An employer doesn't have to report anything unless it resulted in being admitted to the hospital for an overnight stay, losing a finger or losing an eye,” Fulcher said. “Most heat illnesses are not going to get covered under that.”

Fulcher said she believes OSHA is moving quickly to get a proposal published, but does not expect it for another few months. 

“I know that the White House has been putting some pressure on them to get it done,” she said.

Cain, the ACCSH chair, said the fact that OSHA called for a meeting of the advisory committee ahead of its normal schedule makes her think a proposed standard will be on its way soon.

“I feel as though they wouldn't have called the meeting for the end of April if they weren't ready to move,” she said. The next step would be for OSHA to send the proposal to the Office of Management and Budget for review.

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