Nestled in the Pacific Northwest, Washington State is known for its temperate climate. However, that doesn’t mean the region doesn’t experience hot weather. Higher than average temps have already started plaguing the state this year, and unfortunately, wildfires are usually not far behind when temperatures increase. It’s important to remember that both hot weather and smoke can create workplace hazards which are catalysts for workplace injuries and illnesses.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), approximately 35 workers die yearly from heat stress. However, this statistic may not represent the actual fatalities. The BLS suggests that heat-related deaths may be underreported for numerous reasons, including not accounting for undocumented workers and because heat stress may be misdiagnosed as a more common condition, such as a heart attack, due to symptom overlap. And of these work-related deaths, many are new and/or temporary workers, the reason being that these workers are often not trained or acclimated to working in such conditions.
Heat-related illness, often called heat stress, can manifest in several ways, including heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. It is not uncommon for those suffering from heat stress to experience splotchy skin, profuse sweating, a headache, weakness, or dizziness. As symptoms worsen, individuals can become confused, stop sweating, experience a seizure, or lose consciousness. If left untreated, symptoms can become fatal.
Federal Heat-Related Rulemaking
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has yet to create a formal heat standard for employers to follow. Instead, the agency has utilized the General Duty Clause to ensure employers protect workers from heat-related hazards. This umbrella rule states that every employer is responsible for the safety and health of its workers and for providing a safe and healthful workplace for its workers.
However, relying solely on the General Duty Clause could soon change. In 2021, OSHA filed a notice for proposed rulemaking with the Federal Register for Heat Injury and Illness Prevention in Outdoor and Indoor Settings. As is customary for recommended rules, OSHA began working with stakeholders to develop regulation language and held public sessions to gather employer and worker feedback. The public comment period closed in early 2022. A few months later, OSHA released the National Emphasis Program for Outdoor and Indoor Heat-Related Hazards, which addresses activities employers should take when workers are exposed to high temperatures. The program also outlines how OSHA plans to address employers that don’t take heat-exposure prevention measures. The proposed rule remains on OSHA’s 2023 Regulatory Agenda, and we could see a permanent heat standard announced as early as this year.
Washington Heat-Related Rulemaking
Although OSHA sets the minimum safety requirements for employers, many states have state-run safety agencies that exceed federal standards. As such, many states in the southern parts of the U.S. already have permanent heat-exposure rules to help protect workers. But as summer temperatures across the country continue to rise, many northern states are also introducing heat-safety regulations.
Washington’s Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) has released an emergency rule to address workplace heat exposure for the last two years. This emergency rule has temporarily required employers to take action to protect outdoor workers when they are exposed to outdoor heat. The rule was temporary because it only required employers to act during the summer months. However, employers in Washington will soon be required to follow new permanent heat rules.
In March of 2023, L&I filed Proposed Rulemaking to introduce permanent Outdoor Heat Exposure rules that apply to general and agriculture industries. At this stage, the agency has completed its public hearings and is no longer taking comments on the proposed regulations. The proposed language is expected to be accepted, and the permanent requirements will likely be announced in the coming weeks. Affected employers are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the proposed requirements now and start planning for implementation.
The proposed requirements are similar to the emergency rules implemented for the last few years, so most affected employers should be ready. As currently written, under the proposed regulations, outdoor heat requirements will now be year-round and in effect whenever outdoor workers meet action levels:
- When temperatures are 52°F or above, and workers are wearing non-breathable clothing, or
- When temperatures are 80°F or above, and workers wear all other clothing.
Under the proposed rules, affected employers must:
- Have a written Outdoor Heat Exposure Program and make it available to workers in a language they understand. This program can be included in the employer’s required Accident Prevention Program or a stand-alone program.
- Train workers on the components of the Outdoor Heat Exposure Program, including all elements outlined in the rule.
- Encourage workers to take preventative cool-down rest periods when temperature action levels are met.
- Provide shade or other sufficient means for workers to cool down anytime temperature action levels are met. The shade must be close to work activities, and workers on meal or rest periods must be fully covered when sitting in a normal posture.
- Provide cool drinking water and encourage workers to drink at least a quart per hour when temperature action levels are met.
- Acclimatize workers and closely observe them (e.g., regular communication via buddy system, radio, phone, etc.) for 14 consecutive days for heat stress symptoms if they are new or are returning from an absence. Additionally, employers should monitor all workers during a heat wave (when temperature action levels are met and at least 10°F higher than the five-day average highs).
- Implement 10-minute worker cool-down rest periods every two hours when temperatures are at or above 90°F and closely observe workers for signs/symptoms of heat stress. Increase these cool-down rest periods to 15 minutes every hour when temperatures are at or above 100°F. These rest periods can coincide with other required meal or rest periods under wage and hour laws and must be paid unless taken during an unpaid meal period.
Wildfire Smoke-Related Concerns
Wildfire smoke is another health hazard for outdoor workers. Wildfires are increasingly common disasters that can spread quickly, especially during dry conditions, making summer months particularly hazardous. Wildfire smoke is a mix of gases and fine particles from burning materials.
Breathing in wildfire smoke can present immediate health effects for anyone, including coughing, struggling to breathe normally, stinging eyes, headaches, chest pain, an increased heartbeat, and other issues. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), short-term exposure increases the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular disease and premature mortality. Even for healthy individuals, cumulative short-term exposure could cause a reduction in lung function. Studies are ongoing about the long-term effects.
Federal Wildfire Smoke-Related Rulemaking
Like heat exposure, there are no current federal wildfire smoke-specific safety standards. Unlike heat exposure, OSHA doesn’t currently have proposed rulemaking on the regulatory agenda for wildfire smoke. Although OSHA does address wildfire prevention and response on its Safety and Health Topics website, it cites the General Duty Clause for compliance obligations. This means that although there are no specific rules addressing wildfire smoke, employers could be issued citations for failing to protect workers from wildfire smoke hazards.
Washington Wildfire Smoke-Related Rulemaking
In May of 2023, L&I filed Proposed Rulemaking to introduce permanent Wildfire Smoke rules for outdoor workers. The proposed rule addresses how employers must identify harmful wildfire smoke exposures, communicate exposures to workers, control exposures, and train workers on exposure controls and signs and symptoms of exposure. Public hearings are being held through the end of July 2023. Permanent rulemaking is unlikely this summer; however, L&I may implement temporary emergency rules. Employers are encouraged to start planning now for how they will monitor air quality, adjust work plans when air quality is poor, and train employees on exposure symptoms.
Archbright Can Help
Although both OSHA and L&I offer some resources for employers for heat exposure and wildfire smoke, eligible Archbright members can find additional resources, including posters and written plan templates, in the mozzo Resource Library. Microlearnings on the topics are also available in the mozzo Video Training Library. These resources will be updated as permanent rules are finalized. Employers interested in Archbright’s Safety Essentials training, safety awareness training for employees provided by an Archbright Safety Professional, are encouraged to contact info@Archbright.com.