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OSHA’s Cold Shoulder on Heat-Stress Standard has Activist Group Chafing

Friday, July 13, 2012

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Public Citizen, a national non-profit consumer-advocacy organization, is chafing about OSHA’s latest refusal to consider the development of a heat-stress standard, a decision Public Citizen calls “particularly shortsighted given the searing temperatures we are seeing in the summer and the number of workers who are dying from heat.”

 Eivind K. Dovik/Flickr

 Eivind K. Dovik/Flickr

The advocacy group Public Citizen says this year’s hot summer and expectations of continued climate change only add to the urgency for OSHA enactment of a heat-stress standard.

“Over the past 20 years, at least 563 U.S. workers have died and more than 46,000 have suffered serious injuries from acute heat stress, an entirely preventable hazard,” Public Citizen said in an announcement about the OSHA decision.

“Yet there is no federal regulation in place to protect workers, despite decades of expert consensus that such a standard is both necessary and feasible.”

Public Citizen petitioned for such a standard last year; the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, in a recent reply to the group, said it was denying the petition for several reasons, including a conclusion that heat stress does not meet the definition of “grave danger” that is necessary as a basis for issuance of an emergency temporary standard (ETS).

The OSHA action also denied Public Citizen’s petition for a permanent heat-stress standard.

Public Citizen was joined in submitting the petition by Farmworker Justice, a nonprofit advocacy group for agricultural workers; United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, an independent labor union; and Dr. Thomas Bernard, professor and chair of environmental and occupational health at the University of South Florida and an expert on occupational heat stress.

The petition can be accessed at Heat Stress Petition.

OSHA: Existing Regulations
Provide Enforcement Muscle

The OSHA reply to Public Citizen said existing safety regulations require employers to provide a workplace “free of recognized hazards likely to cause death or physical harm,” and those rules give it the authority to cite employers for exposure to heat hazards, among others. The agency said it has enforced those regulations for environmental heat exposures a number of industries, including landscaping, roofing, farming, construction/paving, and others.

 OSHA poster
OSHA says it is taking action on several fronts to address health and safety hazards associated with heat. Shown here is an OSHA poster with a reminder to stay hydrated in the heat.

The OSHA reply, made available by Public Citizen, cited other existing regulations that can be invoked in enforcement actions, including recordkeeping rules, provisions mandating readily availability drinking water, and rules on first-aid and safety training and personal protective equipment.

The reply from OSHA chief David Michaels also said the agency “has increased enforcement by emphasizing to its Regional Administrators the importance of conducting heat inspections and how to draft and support general duty clause citations when conditions warrant such action or issue a hazard alert letter for circumstances when all of the elements for a general-duty clause citation are not present.”

Michaels’ reply to Public Citizen is available at OSHA letter on heat-stress standard petition.

Dr. Sammy Almashat, Public Citizen researcher, Health Research Group, and lead author of the petition for the heat-stress standard, told D+D News the organization “plans to keep monitoring OSHA inspection data to hold the agency to its word that it will increase enforcement of heat hazards under the General Duty Clause.”

“So far, it has not, issuing about the same number of citations over the past year as its historical average—and the same number as a single state, North Carolina, has over the same time period,” Almashat said.

He said Public Citizen also is monitoring an ongoing lawsuit in California involving the state and the United Farm Workers for what the union says is “a lack of rigorous enforcement of that state’s own heat-stress standard.”

“California illustrates the gulf between current federal enforcement and what is needed at a minimum to save workers’ lives,” Almashat told D+D.

“Even though this single state has performed hundreds of times more inspections than federal OSHA since it promulgated its state heat standard in 2005, even this level of enforcement, combined with absurdly low fines, seems inadequate given the ubiquitous nature of occupational heat exposure,” Almashat added.

“In other words, OSHA has a long way to go and it refuses to even take the first step.”

Almashat said Public Citizen also is awaiting the release of NIOSH’s (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) latest recommendations to OSHA for a heat stress standard. He said NIOSH had previously released two sets of recommendations, in 1972 and 1986, “both of which were ignored by OSHA.”

“We think the new recs will be released this year or early next year and will see how OSHA responds, if at all. Given the agency’s reluctance to issue any health or safety standards, however justified and feasible, in the face of industry pressure, we doubt that anything will change without more countervailing pressure from workers, unions and advocacy organizations.”

Hotter Weather ‘Will Only Make Things Worse’

In a statement critical of OSHA issued on July 5, Public Citizen said the abnormally hot weather afflicting much of the nation this summer is likely to take a steep toll on workers. And global warming will only make things worse, it said.

“The epidemic of worker injury and death due to heat exposure is projected only to worsen with climate change,” Almashat said in the announcement. “OSHA’s denial makes explicit the agency’s position to ignore 40 years of expert consensus in the interest of placating industry.”

University of South Florida’s Bernard, a co-signer on Public Citizen’s petition and a reviewer of the revised National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommendations for a heat-stress standard 26 years ago, added: “These deaths are completely preventable with just a few, inexpensive interventions, some of which have already been implemented in several states. The time is long overdue for a federal heat-stress standard that will protect workers from dangerous heat exposure.”

OSHA Ratchets up Heat Awareness
Campaign, Urging ‘Water, Rest, Shade’

In his message to Public Citizen, OSHA’s Michaels said the Labor Department is going all-out in reminding those who work in the heat to take steps to stay cool.

The campaign includes billboards, wallet-sized cards with information on heat-illness symptoms and a downloadable OSHA Heat App for smart phones. See OSHA Mounts Campaign to Prevent Illness in Summer Heat Wave.

“OSHA continues to monitor this issue, with an increased focus on enforcement, while engaging in a robust outreach and education campaign on heat-illness prevention,” Michaels said.

   

Tagged categories: Health and safety; OSHA; Regulations

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