Commentary: Time for employers to prepare for high temperatures


Issue Date: June 14, 2017
By Bryan Little
Bryan Little
Shade must be present at 80 degrees, and must accommodate all employees on recovery or rest periods, plus those on site who are taking meal breaks.
Photo/Christine Souza

Summer is fast approaching. That means Cal/OSHA will be actively enforcing the Heat Illness Prevention standard for outdoor employment.

Farm Bureau and Farm Employers Labor Service have worked with Cal/OSHA and the Cal/OSHA Standards Board on periodic updates to the standard since the first version became effective in 2005. The most recent revision in 2015 tightened requirements for provisions of shade, water and periodic rest, imposed more specific requirements when the temperature exceeds 85 degrees and imposed additional requirements to ensure that employees are fully acclimated to higher temperatures early in the season, or when they begin working in hotter areas after working in cooler areas.

The results of training and education efforts by Farm Bureau, FELS and other agricultural organizations has been to improve employer compliance with the standard and improved protection for workers.

Cal/OSHA officials have told us consistently that levels of compliance with the heat illness standard's worker protection provisions are generally high — to the point the most commonly-cited violation of the HIP standard is a paperwork violation, failure to provide a copy of the written HIP plan at each work location.

Still, the ongoing citations for failure to provide a written plan are worrisome because a violation of this requirement is easy to avoid. Cal/OSHA will also be looking closely at whether your communications systems are workable; that in the places where your workers are working you have an emergency plan if someone gets sick; and you have sufficient cellphone service or some other means of communication to implement that plan. Enforcers will also be talking to employees to be sure they understand heat illness and what they can do to prevent it.

Requirements in the Heat Illness Prevention standard include:

  • Water must be "fresh, pure, suitably cool" and located as close as practicable to where employees are working, with exceptions when employers can demonstrate infeasibility.
  • Shade must be present at 80 degrees, and must accommodate all employees on recovery or rest periods, plus those on site who are taking meal breaks.
  • Employees taking a "preventive cool-down rest" must be monitored for symptoms of heat illness, encouraged to remain in the shade and not ordered back to work until symptoms are gone. Employees with symptoms must be provided appropriate first aid or emergency response.
  • High-heat procedures, triggered at 85 degrees, have been tightened. Employers must ensure "effective" observation and monitoring, including a mandatory buddy system and regular communication with employees working by themselves. In a provision exclusive to agriculture, employees must be provided with a minimum 10-minute cool-down period every two hours during high-heat periods.
  • Emergency response procedures must include effective communication, response to signs and symptoms of heat illness, and procedures for contacting emergency responders to help stricken workers.
  • Acclimation procedures must include close observation of all employees during a heat wave—defined as temperatures of at least 80 degrees. New employees must be closely observed for their first two weeks on the job.

Cal/OSHA also provides employers and employees with services and materials that could assist in complying with the state's heat illness standard. The Cal/OSHA Consultation Service involves safety professionals assisting business owners in developing an individual health and safety program. More information is available at www.dir.ca.gov/DOSH/HeatIllnessInfo.html.

Cal/OSHA is working to produce a draft Indoor Heat Illness Prevention standard to put before the Cal/OSHA Standards Board, in response to a mandate from the Legislature in 2016. While it will not have a direct impact on many employers who must comply with the current outdoor standard, there will be some areas where compliance obligations might overlap, or at least be confusing—in packing sheds and loading docks, and in situations where workers work part of a day outdoors and part of a day indoors.

The agency's early efforts on the indoor standard have been worrisome to experts on the outdoor standard from agriculture, construction and similar industries. Among the thorny issues presented by the agency's early drafts are a substantially greater degree of complexity than the outdoor standard; requiring alternative means of measuring temperature; accounting for any ambient heat sources and applying different requirements accordingly; requirements to constantly reassess heat illness hazards in any indoor space where a hazard exists or could exist; and unclear delineation when employers must comply with the existing outdoor standard and when the same employer must comply with the new indoor standard.

CFBF and FELS will remain engaged in the indoor heat illness rulemaking process to ensure clarity of compliance obligations for employers who operate indoor and outdoor workplaces and employers whose employees work in both environments.

(Bryan Little is director of employment policy for the California Farm Bureau Federation and chief operating officer of Farm Employers Labor Service. He may be contacted at blittle@fels.net.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.