OSHA regulation of heat-related illnesses (which, for simplicity’s sake, we’ll refer to collectively as “heat stress”) is a common source of confusion among employers. Here’s a look at what OSHA does –and doesn’t—require.
How OSHA Uses the General Duty Backdoor to Regulate Heat Stress
Heat stress is one of those work hazards that isn’t addressed by a specific OSHA standard. But if you understand how OSHA works, you realize that you can still have a duty to protect against a hazard even without a standard.
That’s because the OSHA General Duty Clause, Sec. 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, says that every employer must safeguard workers against “recognized hazards” that can cause great bodily harm or death. Heat stress can cause great bodily harm or death. And it’s a recognized hazard. As a result, all employers must take steps to protect their workers against heat stress.
The Risk of Citations for Heat Stress
This isn’t just abstract legal theory. OSHA has invoked the duty to protect workers against heat stress in actual cases.
Example: An Ohio steel and iron castings manufacturer plant with 1,500 workers used molten metal containers that produced tremendous amounts of heat. During a heat wave, one of the workers who worked near a molten metal container collapsed twice from heat stress. After he passed out the first time, the employer tried to cool the work area with large fans and radiant heat shields. But the heat was still unbearable and workers complained to OSHA. An OSHA inspector took measurements and reported the temperature of the worker’s workstation as 95° F. That was just too high in OSHA’s opinion. So it fined the employer for failing to take adequate measures to reduce heat stress hazards in violation of the General Duty Clause [Duriron Co. v. Secretary of Labor, 750 F.2d 28 (6th Cir. 1984)].
The Duriron case isn’t the only source of authority to show that there’s an OSHA duty to protect against heat stress. In a 2001 Interpretation Letter, OSHA stated that it has the right to prosecute employers for not taking measures to deal with heat stress hazards [OSHA Interpretation Letter, Oct. 17, 2001]. The Letter also lists specific steps that employers can take to reduce such hazards including: