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Sept. 1, 2011 

OSHA Must Adopt Standard to Protect Workers from Dangerous Heat Exposure

Hundreds of Workers Dead and Tens of Thousands Seriously Injured During the Past 20 Years While OSHA Has Dragged Its Feet; In Petition, Public Citizen and Other Groups Urge Immediate Action

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) should enact a mandatory standard to protect workers from injury and death resulting from extreme heat exposure, Public Citizen said in a petition sent today to the agency. Also signing the petition were Farmworker Justice; the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America; and Dr. Thomas Bernard, professor and chair of environmental and occupational health at the University of South Florida and a leading expert on heat stress in workers.

Excessive heat exposure while on the job can result in heat exhaustion, with symptoms such as nausea, headaches and extreme thirst, which, if not promptly treated, can progress to heat stroke and death. Workers are particularly susceptible to the effects of heat, in part, because certain types of clothing, such as personal protective equipment, block the normal sweat evaporation response, the body’s most critical cooling mechanism. The most vulnerable are agricultural workers – who account for more than one in five deaths resulting from environmental heat exposure – and construction workers, who suffer heat-related deaths at more than four times the national rate.

Over the past 20 years, at least 523 workers have died and more than 43,000 have suffered heat-related injuries serious enough to result in at least one day away from work. However, because many worker injuries and deaths go unreported and many serious injuries are not counted in company data, even these numbers are probably a vast underestimate of the true scale of the problem, the groups said.

“The epidemic of worker injury and death due to extreme heat exposure is only projected to worsen with global warming, as we see more frequent days of extreme heat,” said Dr. Sammy Almashat, researcher with Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “Yet OSHA has repeatedly refused to act on recommendations from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and its own advisory committee to enact a heat standard that would protect workers from these entirely preventable health effects. As a result, tens of thousands of workers have suffered serious injury or death while OSHA essentially relies on employers to police themselves.”

NIOSH undertook an extensive study in 1972 on heat exposure and recommended that OSHA adopt a standard to protect workers from dangerous heat-related effects. In response, OSHA appointed an advisory committee that proposed a heat exposure standard. Yet OSHA ignored both the committee’s advice and additional recommendations provided in 1986 by NIOSH. This year, OSHA launched an educational campaign for employers and workers on the dangers of heat exposure, but because it lacks an effective enforcement policy to hold employers accountable, this effort is doomed to fail, Public Citizen said in its petition.

When OSHA does address dangerously hot conditions for workers, it relies primarily on its indirect authority under the general duty clause of the 1970 law that created the agency. However, as OSHA head David Michaels noted several years ago before becoming OSHA administrator, the agency rarely exercises this authority and does so only in cases of egregious employer negligence. Indeed, over its 40-year history, OSHA has conducted just 112 inspections under the general duty clause in which citations were issued for violations of safe heat exposure practices, and 13 of those citations were later dismissed. In addition, penalties imposed under the clause are so small (just $2,000 per violation) that many employers factor them into the cost of doing business, rather than safeguard their workers, as is clearly evident from the continuing high rates of heat-related deaths and injuries.

While OSHA has dragged its feet, three states – California, Washington and Minnesota – and the military have enacted standards that, while deficient, go a long way toward protecting their workers from extreme heat conditions. The standards require employers to do such things as provide drinking water, shade and rest breaks, in addition to training employees on the hazards of heat stress.

In the five years since California enacted the first outdoor heat standard in the country, this single state has conducted 138 times more inspections resulting in a citation for unsafe heat exposure practices than OSHA conducted during that time. In fact, California conducted more of these inspections (195) under its standard in the first half of 2011 alone than OSHA has completed in almost 40 years.

“OSHA has demonstrated an alarming lack of oversight over the past 40 years in the face of this recognized and entirely preventable hazard,” said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “Only with the implementation of a specific, enforceable standard will hundreds of lives be saved and thousands of heat injuries prevented over the next decade.”

Added Virginia Ruiz, senior attorney with Farmworker Justice, and co-signer of the petition, “Farmworkers are most at risk for the deadly effects of excessive heat exposure, and not a growing season passes without reports of tragic – but always preventable – heat stroke fatalities in the fields. Surely the workers who toil so hard to grow and harvest our nation’s food deserve better. We call on OSHA to immediately begin addressing this urgent issue through a federal heat standard.”

Public Citizen and co-petitioners are calling on OSHA to implement a permanent heat standard that would apply to all indoor and outdoor workers. The agency should require that workers have access to sufficient drinking water and shade, and be given mandatory rest breaks on particularly hot days, among other measures.

Public Citizen’s petition also calls for an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for a heat stress threshold to be issued immediately to protect workers while OSHA initiates its rulemaking process. Both California and Washington implemented an ETS prior to finalizing permanent standards after recognizing that the entirely preventable deaths of just a few workers represented an emergent crisis in regulatory oversight. With hundreds of times as many deaths having already occurred nationwide, the petition calls on OSHA to follow suit and act immediately to protect workers and prevent further needless deaths and injuries.

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